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Book Review: The Way We’ll Be – The Zogby Report on the Transformation of the American Dream by John Zogby

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The only mark against John Zogby’s career as a pollster has been his tendency to let his mouth get the best of him. He’s yet to have a poll prove blatantly incorrect, but in 2004, Zogby would tell anyone who would listen on Election Day that Kerry would win by a comfortable margin. His final poll showed Bush winning by a percentage point. The Way We’ll Be: The Zogby Report on the Transformation of the American Dream, Zogby’s first book for a popular audience, gives him a vehicle to explain his line of work, his views on the nature of polling, and, somewhat more spuriously, where his polls show America to be going. It’s clear that he’s had 20 years of opinions stored up that he can’t wait to let out. For better or worse, The Way We’ll Be lets Zogby’s mouth run wild.

The Way We’ll Be is a relentlessly optimistic book. He sees a future that’s shaped by an adult population with no memory of World War II, the Cold War, or increasingly, the turbulence of the 1960s. Today’s 18-29 year olds are the backbone of a rising wave of tolerance, global consciousness, and environmental friendliness. While Zogby declares from the start that he’s “no Pollyanna,” he treads dangerously close to apologist territory with his positive outlook. It may be true that that today’s youth are more tolerant than older generations, and that the opinions of 18-29 year olds are the key to measuring future attitudes of the American public. But as the Bush presidency winds down, optimism is a bitter pill to swallow.

Backing Zogby’s case is a plethora of tables, percentages, majorities and plurarities to dissect. At some points, the numbers become so overwhelming that it seems your best bet is to trust the conclusions of the expert. Of course, this is not a statistical report, but a work of popular nonfiction. Zogby clearly has some ideas in place that are more normative than descriptive. Just witness his section on “champs and chumps” of recent advertising campaigns in the book’s penultimate chapter. Instead of focusing on which ads were the most effective at selling a product and which failed, he focuses on which ads “get it,” “it” being his argument that advertisers should be more honest. This leads to passages as painfully sophomoric as his description of the “What Happens in Vegas” ad campaign:

So it’s okay to lie, cheat, steal, carouse; get stinking drunk; marry a total stranger one night and divorce the same stranger the next night; and gamble away the kids’ college money because in good old tight-lipped Las Vegas no one ever whispers a word? Give me a break. What planet are these people living on?

This is not exactly a careful analysis of empirical data, nor is his listing of “just about every political campaign" as a “chump” despite admitting they can often be effective. This passage taints an entire chapter of data that very tenuously shows a generational development of a “bullshit detector.”

It would be easy to take passages like the preceding and dismiss The Way We’ll Be outright. Many of Zogby’s theses depend on percentage-points differences that are barely above the margin of error. But to dismiss Zogby’s entire book would ignore some of the more compelling points that he makes. One of the more fascinating is his argument that the best ways to measure voting tendencies are by consumption habits. It seems that many of our commonly held stereotypes are actually crucial statistical predictors: Wal-Mart shoppers and NASCAR lovers primarily vote Republican, while Target shoppers and fans of Richard Pryor vote Democrat. This use of statistical examination to address commonly held assumptions is exactly what a pollster should be doing, and Zogby has admittedly used unconventional methodology to come up with some particularly striking results.

After the mess of his chapter on authenticity, we get a concluding chapter that utilizes some of his strongest and most convincing data. Rather than divide American generations into the standard Greatest Generation, Baby Boomers, and Generations X and Y, he divides America into “Privates,” “Woodstockers,” “Nikes,” and “First Globals.” This division overcomes some commonly held misconceptions. Generation X, for instance, may be more cynical and apathetic towards politics, but they also represent a sea change of devotion of the individual to one’s own family and personal convictions. The Baby Boomers did make a breakthrough with radical politics, but they’ve also become decadent whiners who are primed for a political reinvention.

It’s unclear how much of the differences of opinions between these generations are due to the natural process of maturing or the product of something specific to this particular period in American history. What’s more compelling than Zogby’s analysis of general beliefs, however, is his data on specific issues. Across the board, adults under the age of 40 are consistently on the more progressive side of a controversial issue. They’re more likely to be tolerant of stem cell research, more in favor of net neutrality, more concerned with carbon emissions, and more open to multinational negotiations in the Middle East. More so than any larger intellectual change in American values (or what Zogby calls the rise of “Secular Spiritualism”), these specific results are the most telling signs of what the future holds in America’s political landscape. Zogby has his numbers right, but in The Way We’ll Be, once more, he lets his mouth get the best of him.

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About Ethan Stanislawski