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Sixteen years of sidewalk surveys

When WORLD’s founder wants to know what’s on the mind of regular folks, he heads to the local Walmart

Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Sixteen years of sidewalk surveys

Longtime WORLD readers are familiar with Joel Belz’s visits to his local Walmart—what he calls “the blue-collar crossroads of the nation.” There, on the sidewalk outside the front doors, WORLD’s founder has asked shoppers their opinions on everything from Social Security to Supreme Court decisions.

Joel’s shoe-leather reporting has provided us with some eye-opening insights into the thoughts, hopes, and dreams of everyday Americans. And his findings, though more anecdotal than scientific, led him to conclusions that have since proven accurate, including Americans’ apparent acceptance of same-sex marriage (see “Who’s to say?” from 2003).

Below is a sampling of Joel’s survey columns since 2001. They offer an excellent snapshot of the state of our country over the last decade and a half. —Mickey McLean

Sidewalk survey

If this was so easy to do, why hadn’t I done it before?

Issue date: Aug. 25, 2001

“O Lord, I don’t know what I want for my kids,” a 30-ish African-American mother just outside our local Walmart told me. “I just want it to be easier for them than it was for me.”

I had just asked her the same question I asked about 20 other blacks in various settings in our city last week: “If you could pick just one thing you’d like to be different in America over the next generation, what would it be?” I made it clear we were doing an issue of WORLD Magazine on the subject of race relations in our society. What single change might be most for the good?

Sidewalk surveys lack statistical significance, to be sure. But they also produce a certain kind of emotional wallop and immediacy you don’t find with mail-in forms or telephone polls. I was impressed by how willing everyone was to engage my nosiness.

“Respect,” said John, who was watering plants at Walmart’s garden center. “Just respect. Respect by you for us, and respect from us to you. And don’t ask me to go any further, because then it gets too deep. We’d be a lot better off if we just respected each other.”

Elaine surprised me with her answer: “Guys who will be dads instead of dudes,” she said. She grew up in the church, and her parents are still together. That’s what she wanted for herself, but she’s a single mom now with three elementary-age children. Her husband left them three years ago, taking off for Baltimore and another woman, she said. The fact that he rarely sends money is an overwhelming practical problem; but the fact that she’s alone in her parenting is much bigger in her mind.

I headed for the county courthouse. Eldon was waiting near the back entrance for the start of visiting hours at the county jail, where his younger brother faces trial next month on a drug charge. “I just wish we could wipe out the whole drug problem in America,” Eldon told me fiercely. “It messes us all up so bad.” He told me he had heard that more than a third of the jail’s population were there because of drug-related offenses.

While Eldon made no excuses for his brother’s behavior, Letetia said she hopes her children get a better break in America’s courts than her own generation has found. “Look around you,” she said, waving her hand at the dozens of people milling about and filing through the metal detector. “If you think there are more black folks here just because we behave worse than others, then I guess that makes the point. Racism is alive and well. I can tell you that from the time they start looking for a suspect until they sentence him for what he did, the process is stacked against us. I hope that changes for my kids.”

From the courthouse I headed for Asheville High School, a public school with a decent if not great reputation, and a much higher proportion of minority students than would be suggested by our county’s population at large. Buses were coming and going on this first morning of classes, and a few parents were dropping students off in cars as well. I asked one mother, Genevieve, what changes she’d like to see brought about by the time her son, a sophomore with an interest in computers, has children of his own. “I just hope they get a better start in school than Edward did,” she said. “Eddie didn’t learn to read very well back in his first years—and that’s been a problem for him right up until now. Most of our schools aren’t as good as those in the suburbs. I wish we had much better schools.”

I ended my survey right in our own office. Jacque Logan, mother of three, coordinates the fulfillment functions for WORLD magazine, making sure each week’s mailings happen as they are scheduled to and keeping close touch with the U.S. Postal Service. Jacque told me she simply shares the dream Martin Luther King Jr. expressed. “I just want them to be judged by the content of their character, and not by the color of their skin,” she said. Then, I think to make sure I didn’t take that just as a pollyannaish motto, she offered a real-life example of what she meant. She told how not so long ago she had been walking just outside our office’s front door when another shopper walking near her, noticing Jacque, then clutched her purse protectively closer to her. “That naturally hurts,” she said. “It would be wonderful if my children never had to experience that.”

It was, as I say, a pretty informal survey. It was instructive. But almost nothing I learned surprised me, except how easy it was to talk with folks about things that really matter. What also surprised me was the fact that I had never done it before.

Repair? Why not build?

My Walmart sidewalk poll wasn’t much help

Issue date: Sept. 7, 2002

It’s a startling statistic: One out of every 32 adults in America last year was either behind bars, or on probation, or on parole. That amounts to 6.6 million people—up 150,000 or 2.3 percent from the year before. Average annual growth in that category between 1995 and 2001 was 3.6 percent.

So, I thought, since no one else seems able to get a handle on this tough societal problem, I’d head back to my favorite place for social research. I’d hang out for a couple of hours at the entrance to Walmart and ask several dozen typical American shoppers what they’d do. How can we cut down on those dreadful numbers?

Over a couple of hours, I deliberately talked to 32 adults. As I did so, I kept asking myself: Which one of the 32 looked most like a jailbird? Indeed, after asking my standard question of each person, I also asked: “Have you ever served time in jail or prison?” Three said they had.

By far the most radical idea came from Fred, a big and good-natured fellow who said he was a sheriff’s deputy. “Expand capital punishment to a lot more offenses,” he said nonchalantly. Like what? Well, maybe things like running red lights, forgetting to declare your income from a babysitting job last spring on your income tax, or falling behind on your alimony. If you just executed all those people, Fred said, it sure would cut the prison population by a significant percentage. Statistically, of course, he was right. But my research was not off to a promising start.

My next few respondents did a better job of reflecting society’s typical answers to the prison problem. Here’s what a few of them said:

Adele, who last spring quit teaching fourth grade in a public school after 26 years, suggested the government should be spending a great deal more money and energy on re-education. “Most of these folks are dropouts from school. Now I bet most of them—or a least a lot of them—have learned their lesson. If they could get a diploma or a degree, most of them would stay on the straight and narrow. At least I hope they would,” she added with a half-doubting grimace.

Not nearly as tough-minded as Fred, but still headed in the same general direction, was Charles, who said he was sick and tired of sending criminals off to country-club settings. “Is that just a picture you have in your mind, or have you actually been there?” I asked. “You’d better believe I’ve been there,” he told me, to visit a cousin who had passed some fraudulent checks. “He lived in nicer digs than I do,” Charles huffed. “And I have to pay for them!”

Marie’s gripe is with shutting up white-collar criminals where they can do nothing to make good on their crimes. “They ought to be out there earning what they stole and paying it back,” she said. “The way we’re doing it now, we have to pay for them. They should be paying us.” And with Enron, WorldCom, and all the others, Marie pointed out, there must be a lot of white-collar criminals in prison these days.

Leslie, who told me she is a paralegal, says the lawyers she works for have no respect at all for the whole system of minimum sentencing. “It’s tying the hands of judges.”

One idea I didn’t hear though, either in front of Walmart or in the learned journals, was this: Not a single person talked about the righteous living that keeps people out of jail in the first place. No one talked about the fact that Gideon Bibles are permissible in prisons, but not in schools. Nobody mentioned what might happen if in those Bibles, folks started reading seriously lines that promised: “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers.”

Sadly, vast segments of American society are devoted these days to repair work. It seems a lot less popular to apply yourself to building things right in the first place.

Who’s to say?

Before too long, there’s good reason to fear that relativistic question will settle almost every philosophical difference

Issue date: Dec. 13, 2003

There’s nothing statistically valid about my polling efforts—but I still like the down-to-earthness of my very informal surveys. I just go next door to the handy Walmart, stand at the main entrance, and collar a few of the folks coming and going. It’s easier on the Monday after Thanksgiving, because the crowds are ample. If someone wants to ignore me, that’s fine; there are plenty more who are willing to talk.

This morning, I wanted to ask folks about homosexual marriages. My hypothesis at the beginning of my survey was simply that the big push to legalize marriages between homosexuals is a very un-Walmart idea. Just as Walmart didn’t become the nation’s biggest retailer by putting stores in the suburbs of Boston, so the recent decision of the highest court in Massachusetts isn’t especially a reflection of the social preferences of the blue-collar folks who crowd into Walmart’s big blue-and-gray boxes.

“Goodness, no!” said Martha, the first woman I stopped. She was fortyish and feminine. “It’s one thing to give gays the freedom—the quiet freedom—to do what they do. But no way should we go on and let them call it marriage. Just mark me down as being unalterably against that foolishness.”

And out of 30 responses, Martha’s was most typical. “I want to be tolerant,” Ronnie echoed. Then he grinned. “But don’t push me too far,” he added. “As my grandma used to say, ‘Don’t spoil a good inclination.’”

“There’s just too much we don’t know yet,” said Verona, whose two teenage daughters rolled their eyes a bit while listening to their mom and me talk. “How can we possibly predict what’s going to happen to kids in gay homes? Doesn’t it take 20 years, or maybe even a generation or two, to see what the effects are going to be?”

And whatever positive PR the homosexual community may have derived from the nation’s major media over the last quarter century, AIDS and other health issues still color the public’s thinking. “Just when we’re told again that AIDS is speeding up, not slowing down—that doesn’t seem to me to be the right time to tell gays it’s OK for them to marry each other,” said Robert.

In fact, a solid two-thirds of those I chatted with opposed the idea of legalizing homosexual marriages. And of that group, you couldn’t help being impressed with the emphatic nature of their opposition. On both counts, my findings weren’t much different from recent national polls. Americans at large have responded to recent court rulings by increasing—both in number and in annoyance—their resistance to homosexual marriage. In fact, advocates of the homosexual agenda have worried openly that they may have unintentionally provoked a backlash by pushing for too much too fast.

But that is hardly the whole story—both in my Walmart survey and in the national statistics. Ginny, a young mother with two toddlers, seemed altogether true to her generation when she told me candidly that while she couldn’t begin to understand anything as “weird” as gay marriage, neither was she the type to stand in the way if that was what they wanted. Indeed, only two people out of the 30 I talked with seemed ready, on principle, to suggest that homosexual marriage is itself a good thing. But a full third of my sample were eager—their own preferences notwithstanding—not to be seen as judgmental or standing in the way of other people’s styles and inclinations. Most tellingly, this smaller group tended to be significantly younger than the majority still willing to stand its ground.

“Really, now,” Al tried to persuade me. “How can anybody be sure what the best approach is? Haven’t human beings tried just about every combination? Who’s to say what might prove to be the best answer? Who am I to tell somebody else what’s right and what’s wrong?”

Al’s friend Gina twisted the knife a bit. “Traditional male-female marriages aren’t doing so well, either,” she reminded me. “Maybe we just need to evolve on to some new family models now. I hear lots of people worry about the loss of tradition—but I’m not so sure how much I like what tradition has given us.”

Short-term, I think, the Walmart wisdom is that conventional marriage—between one man and one woman—is safe in America. For now, the homosexual community may indeed have overreached. Their elitism may have backfired, and blue-collar values will prevail.

But probably not for long. Apart from God’s grace, the ratios of those two main schools of thought will change. Sooner than we can imagine, the national motto by which we’ll settle every difference will be that dismaying question: “Who’s to say?”

A little too casual?

Walmart survey prompts a worry or two about Social Security

Issue date: Feb. 26, 2005

It’s time for another Walmart survey, but I’ve got a problem. The traditional Walmart that for 14 years has operated just 100 paces from my office door is no longer there. Business was apparently so good that they locked their doors a few days ago to reopen two miles away in a building more than twice as big and under a Super Walmart sign.

All these changes, however—along with the vitriolic hatred a number of folks have for Walmart—haven’t changed my mind about the advisability of parking out as a journalist from time to time at Walmart’s front door for an informal public opinion survey on some timely topic. Walmart customers may be more blue collar than upscale, but I’m still persuaded they represent a pretty good cross section of what America is thinking.

So with the Social Security issue racing through my mind, I thought I’d ask some of Walmart’s younger shoppers what they think on the topic. My problem? The new Walmart has two front doors instead of just one, and I couldn’t decide which was more statistically accurate.

In the end, I talked briefly with 60 people—30 at each door, and all under 25 years of age. Here’s how they responded.

More than half (36) agreed that Social Security’s long-term problems are “pretty serious, needing some radical help.” Half that many (18) said the problems are “fixable through a few slightly painful adjustments.” Astonishingly, only six thought that the problems are “overstated and an issue that will take care of itself.” And if you had seen and heard those six people, you would have discounted their responses in any case. They were the most happy-go-lucky, loosey-goosey folks you can imagine. For them, every problem in life is going to take care of itself.

I don’t know how typical of all young Americans this group was, but these were happily clueless—and almost carefree—about the amount they’re contributing to Social Security. Most guessed low; two-thirds said they thought about 3 percent is withheld from their paychecks for this purpose. The other third thought about 10 percent is withheld. In fact, the amount is 6.2 percent. It’s hard to see how citizens ignorant of the basic facts can be counted on to respond wisely to any future debate on the topic.

But these respondents were even farther off when asked how much they think their employers contribute to their Social Security accounts. Almost all were high, averaging about 13 percent instead of the actual matching amount of 6.2 percent.

I gave these young people two choices with reference to what happens to the money that gets withheld. Eighty percent agreed (wrongly) that the money “goes into a government bank where it earns interest until my retirement.” Only 20 percent chose the right answer: “The money is credited to my account, and then spent on other government needs.”

Even so, there was little optimism about the system. Only 22 percent thought that benefits “will be there pretty much like they are for other retirees today.” Thirty percent said benefits will be there, but smaller in size, and another 30 percent said they’d be there but probably delayed until a later retirement age. Eighteen percent were gloomy enough to say the benefits probably won’t be there at all.

Forty of the 60 young respondents thought that private savings accounts would make Social Security stronger. The other 20 said it would make the system too risky.

Only 10 of the 60 realized that if a typical couple pays into the system for their whole lives, contributing perhaps $150,000 not counting interest earned; then starts collecting benefits at 65; and then is killed in a car crash when they’re 60—that in such a case the $150,000 plus interest earnings is totally gone. The other 50 folks assumed erroneously that somehow a surviving family would somehow benefit from what was left. In fact, only old Uncle Sam would claim such a benefit.

It was an affable, agreeable group who seemed to find my brief assignment to be enjoyable. But I found myself hoping they can carry that casual spirit into their retirement four or five decades from now.

Walmart wisdom

Citizen shoppers aren’t overly worried about federal snoops project

Issue date: Feb. 11, 2006

It had been a year since I’d dropped by the local Walmart for one of my occasional opinion surveys. And I was more and more irritated by what seemed to me to be a lopsided focus by the mainstream media on President Bush’s use of secret wiretaps in the war on terrorism. So what better way, I thought, to discover what ordinary Americans really think than to ask them face-to-face?

I was absolutely direct with 50 different shoppers over a two-hour time frame. “Are you personally concerned,” I asked each one, “about the possibility that the federal government might be listening in on your phone calls? That’s been in the news a lot, you know.”

They knew. Not a single one of the 50 people I talked to seemed in the dark about the issue, and that surprised me. Yet what surprised me even more was the superficiality of their answers—on both sides of the question. Most of the responses tended to be accompanied with some variation of a look of dismay that said: “You’re not really taking this stuff seriously, are you?”

Almost everyone I talked with related the issue of phone taps to terrorist threats. Some saw that threat as very real, and therefore worth some loss in personal liberty, while others viewed it as nothing more than a governmental excuse to snoop.

“I know they say they have to do it to catch the terrorists,” said Wayne, who amazingly was my only interviewee who wouldn’t give his last name. “But if Bush says that’s why they have to do it, then I simply don’t trust it.” And why doesn’t Wayne trust the president? “That’s just his reputation, that’s all,” he said.

Melissa Dean was trusting in her simple response: “If they listen to me, it’s got to be for a good reason.” And Debbie Rollins agreed: “They’ve got a more important life than we do,” she said.

A few wanted to split the difference. “For me, no way,” said Velda Ellege. “But if it’s foreigners they want to listen to, that’s just fine, so far as I’m concerned.”

For the record—and I stress that there’s no statistical significance here—the respondents split pretty much down the middle. Out of 50, 23 said they weren’t concerned, 21 said they were, and the other six gave garbled replies. I thought of repeating my interviews around the corner in front of the Barnes & Noble bookstore, just to see how the sophisticates there might differ from the blue-collar folks at Walmart; but that experiment will have to wait for another day.

The most emphatic, and probably most persuasive, response of my outing came from George Fox. “I don’t worry about them listening,” he said. “I just don’t talk on the phone that much. Fact is, I don’t make no phone calls at all.”

I had to conclude: Whatever listening the government does, they’re going to have to do a lot of it to hear anything that makes sense.

Going with the flow

Ad hoc survey shows little thought behind permissive beliefs

Issue date: June 6, 2009

If you’re as dismayed as I am by the growing tendency of the American people to give their assent to aberrations like homosexual marriage, get ready for even bigger surprises—and disappointments. And as you process all that, remember this: The issue isn’t so much what people believe and don’t believe. The big issue is where they ground those beliefs.

I headed this morning back to the front door area of the local Walmart to do a little “shoe-leather reporting.” I’d spent the weekend in Washington, D.C., and heard the Beltway spin on a dozen topics. I’d read the latest surprises from the Gallup poll, suggesting that the American people are more pro-life than they’ve been in years. Now I wanted to talk to a few of these Americans face-to-face. Where better to do that than at the blue-collar crossroads of the nation?

So I set out to ask 50 Walmart shoppers two simple questions: Do you favor or oppose having the state of North Carolina give married status to homosexual partners? What is the basis for your position? And, to “upscale” my survey a bit, I added half an hour each in front of Best Buy and Office Depot.

Now let me admit a little deviousness in my process—a little method in my madness. I have worked professionally enough with the science of sampling to know that there is absolutely no significance to my survey. Even if all 50 respondents fell in one direction or the other, I wouldn’t really have much to report to you other than a human-interest anecdote. It wouldn’t tell you anything at all definitive about American society today, about North Carolinians in general, or Monday morning shoppers in particular.

What I really wanted was frankly something of a setup. I hoped I might identify at least a dozen people who said, in one sense or another, that they favored extending marriage rights to homosexuals—just so that I could then ask them the second question, and then, most pointedly, a third.

So here’s what actually happened. Out of the 50 people who answered my first query, 31 said they want the state of North Carolina to hold to traditional laws and restrict marriage to heterosexuals. They based that preference on everything from tradition to pragmatism to God-given standards.

Five folks said, in varying terms, that they didn’t feel qualified to answer. “Who am I to say?” they pled helplessly.

The other 14 were pretty forthright in lending their support to a change in state law that would give the privileges of marriage to homosexuals. That figure didn’t at all surprise me—and I stress again its statistical meaninglessness.

What did get my attention was the emptiness of these people’s reasoning. None of them, thank goodness, pointed to “tradition.” A few were pretty pragmatic, saying that society sooner or later has to settle for “what works.” And a handful appealed, you might say, to “God-given standards”—arguing that if God made “those people that way,” who are we to argue with what He does?

To all 14, though—in keeping with my overall strategy—I addressed my third simple question. “Why,” I asked, “based on your justification of homosexual marriage, should North Carolina not also endorse polygamy—or even the marriage of a man and his very lovable dog?”

It’s at that level of their answers, I suggest, that we might all begin to prepare for the thunderous collapse of our culture and society. In the first place, it’s clear that not a single one of the 14 had ever once pondered such a matter. But much worse, they didn’t care, and nothing I could say even fascinated them with the argument. “So,” said the most thoughtful of the bunch, “maybe so.” “Why don’t you just go to hell?” snarled the one I probably wouldn’t classify as the most friendly. (Nor, I should add, was that respondent in the “blue collar” subset of my sample.)

Back to the numbers, which I said are virtually insignificant. I stand by that judgment—except to note that there’s no way 14 out of 50 Americans even 15 years ago would have said that homosexual marriage was an OK thing with them. Now they offer their empty approval, not because they’ve thought it through and come to a reasoned conclusion, but more because such pondering is just too strenuous for them. The direction of our vapid thoughtlessness is clear; only the speed of its takeover seems now in question.

Mr. Gallup would be sad

A Walmart sidewalk poll is very revealing—but only about the state of civil discourse

Issue date: Dec. 17, 2011

I’ve never pretended that the occasional Walmart sidewalk polls I’ve conducted through the years had any statistical significance. But the death of George Gallup Jr. in mid-November reminded me how long it had been since I’d done such a parking lot survey. Even if Gallup’s team of professionals might not fully approve my sampling methodology, his experts would have to be fascinated with the nitty-gritty responses I’ve typically gotten from the Walmart shoppers.

So I grabbed my umbrella on this rainy Monday morning and headed out. Today, I thought, my question would be a model of simplicity and fairness: “Is there any particular message you’d like to send to the government in Washington?” And then I would listen and take notes. Who could second-guess so straightforward an inquiry?

Who? Just about everybody, I discovered. The anger and distrust that so many in the body politic have directed toward Washington sloshes over those of us in the media as well. Even if they’ve never heard of us—and only a few of those in my Walmart survey had heard of WORLD—they assume we’re just part of the problem.

“What are you selling?” Fully two-thirds of those I approached were suspicious of my motives. “No, honestly,” I countered. “I just want your opinion.” “Sure,” one of them responded bluntly. “Just like all the other crooks in Congress.” He wouldn’t give me his name.

I’d learned to carry a bag of recent issues of WORLD, so that when someone doubted my legitimacy, I could show them that I really was going to translate this conversation into a magazine column. But just as soon as they saw the magazines, they were sure I was a salesman. I couldn’t win.

Then things got worse. Mina Corbett (she was happy for me to know her name) asked suspiciously how she could be sure I would quote her accurately. “How do I know,” she asked as I scribbled furiously, “that you aren’t in this with all the rest of them? How do I know you’re not here just to make me look foolish?” I promised her I would send her a finished copy of the magazine. But, overwhelmed now with caution, she was reluctant to give me either her address or her phone number.

How, in this muddle of belligerence and suspicion, are those of us in the media ever supposed to report accurately what people are thinking? I had what seemed to me a pretty non-threatening question—but after three or four attempts, I hadn’t even gotten to a cordial, trusting exchange.

My thoughts went back to the Gallup organization. For many years, they’ve been the gold standard of a sophisticated scientific approach to discovering what the public thinks on a host of different topics. Are the Gallup people having the same trouble I’m having this morning? I wondered.

The fact is that they are having the same trouble. So is our whole society. George Gallup’s death might even be seen as symbolic of the death of some pretty basic levels of civil discourse. Now it’s not just that a number of topics (like religion and politics) are considered unseemly for personal discussion. It’s that personal discussion of almost any sort has become suspect. It’s too intrusive. How do I know I can trust you with such personal matters?

I’d done these Walmart surveys a number of times during the early 2000s when Walmart was right next door to our offices. Then came the day, half a dozen years ago, when the manager of what had become a Super Walmart asked me to move on. “We don’t want you upsetting our customers,” he told me.

Indeed. So it’s become upsetting now to ask a shopper very simply: “Is there any particular message you’d like to send to the government in Washington?” Until today, no shopper had ever suggested to me that I was being overly intrusive. Today, almost all of them seemed to think I was overly nosey.

So there’s no Walmart sidewalk survey this week. I have to go refine my social skills. What I used to think was material for a civil but robust discussion now seems out of bounds. I hope this is a temporary diversion—or maybe just the rainy weather. But if it’s something more, even George Gallup’s experts are in for some real trouble.

From trivial to vulgar

Be careful what survey results you wish for

Issue date: Dec. 31, 2011

What a difference 10 days make! If you read my lament in WORLD’s last issue, you’ll recall my frustration at the reluctance of a band of Walmart shoppers to participate in my simple sidewalk survey. My question to them, I thought, was fair: “Is there any particular message you’d like to send to the government in Washington?” But almost no one wanted to talk—and I devoted this space to my frustration.

I couldn’t let the matter rest. Back I went this past week to the same Walmart parking lot, determined to show myself a more winsome and a better interviewer. The rain had stopped, the holidays were closer, the Salvation Army bell ringer was there, and maybe, I thought, people would have cheered up a bit.

The results include good news and bad news.

The good news is that the folks coming and going at Walmart’s main door were indeed sweeter-spirited and more willing to stop for a brief chat than they had been 10 days earlier. Both times, I approached about 30 people over a two-hour period. I’d done this same thing a number of times before, and typically found I could get 20 decent conversations out of 30 approaches. What was so upsetting a couple of weeks back was that out of 30 approaches, only two or three people were willing to talk. This week, only one person out of 30 said no—and she apologized and explained she was late for another appointment.

The bad news, though, is that all these folks who were so ready to talk had so little to say.

“Hang Obama!” ranted Delmar Howard, one of my very first interviewees. “What?” I asked, taken back by his vicious candor. “Yah,” he said, watching me take notes. “You asked what message I’d like to go to Washington. And I said to tell them to hang Obama. He’s done more to destroy our government than any terrorist ever thought of doing. He should pay the ultimate price.” And then: “You got that?”

“Pump a whole lot more money into Planned Parenthood,” suggested Jayfish Thompson. “I hear they help keep poor families smaller, and that’s one of the main things we need right now. We can’t afford any more poor people.” Was my wide-eyed wonderment showing as I scribbled in my reporter’s pad?

“Cut the prices of food and gas,” said Lisa Reed. I wanted to ask her if that was the federal government’s task, in the first place, and if the feds had that ability even if it was their job. I was here, though, not to argue, but simply to report responses. Like shopper Thomas Clark’s complaint: “The rich don’t pay no taxes at all. Poor people been carrying this country since the United States began. It’s time the rich people did their part.” I asked Mr. Clark how much his tax bill had been in 2011, and he said he “couldn’t rightly remember.”

“Legalize drugs,” said Jasper Marshall. “We’ve got more people in jail because of drugs than for murder and rape. Is that what we want?”

I could go on. But it’s time to tabulate the results. Virtually every response from these willing gabbers fell into either of two disappointing categories: They were trivial and without substance. Or they were crude, coarse, and vulgar.

Some will say this is the nature of a democracy. Don’t expect elegant answers from the common people. Don’t look for sophisticated insights from the hoi polloi. Maybe you’d get more thoughtful, civil answers from shoppers at Barnes & Noble. But I’ve been around enough to sense that the distance and distrust I heard two weeks ago at Walmart, and then the trivial and vulgar responses this week, are not an altogether unrepresentative picture of the larger America today. The mass media feed it. The individualized social media (Facebook and Twitter) feed it. And it’s not true only of the “Walmart class.” We have become, across all classes and in so many ways, a trivialized and vulgarized people.

So I got the responses I was looking for. But now I almost wish I hadn’t.

Update from Walmart

Shoppers—who are also voters—show very little interest in the issues

Issue date: Dec. 29, 2012

James Devine wasn’t at all sure he wanted to talk to me. Here we were just outside a Walmart superstore in northeast Philadelphia, next to a strip of historic U.S. Highway 1 that a few years ago had looked like a main street in Eastern Europe during its worst post-war days. Now the whole place had a distinctly up-to-date look.

I had just asked Mr. Devine, whom I guessed was maybe 30 years old, if I could borrow his thoughts for a few minutes as part of a public opinion survey. I asked him if he’d ever been interviewed by a “national magazine,” and that got his attention. How worried was he, I asked for starters, about this thing the experts were calling the fiscal cliff. “Oh, yah—that,” he said with a grin. “To tell you the truth, I don’t have a clue what they’re talking about. And I’m not sure they do either.”

Longtime readers of this column are better prepared than Mr. Devine was for what was going on. Once a year or so I’ve made it my practice to do an informal sidewalk survey just outside the entrance of the Walmart close to my office. I typically try to talk briefly with 25 to 30 people, chosen at random. I’ve never argued that my surveys have any statistical legitimacy. They simply provide a casual snapshot of how a handful of blue-collar Americans—Walmart shoppers—tend to think.

This was the first time I’ve done such a survey away from my local base in Asheville, N.C. And I was startled at how little difference there was between Asheville and Philadelphia, in both the content and the attitude of those men and women with whom I talked.

Content. In my 25 to 30 mini-interviews, I was startled how little these folks knew about the basics. Only a handful of them even tried to summarize what a “fiscal cliff” was all about. Only one had even a remote idea what the term “Arab Spring” signified. Not a single one even tried to respond when I asked, “Do you ever worry that our government may be taking on too much of a European feel?” I was speaking a very foreign language.

These were not, after all, a bunch of adolescents. They were adult Americans, out shopping with their families. At least half of them had reached or were at least approaching what we call middle age. But for the most part, they were simply unable to use the common tools of conversation to talk about the world and the society in which they find themselves.

Attitude. Or maybe it wasn’t that they were unable to enter the discussion. Maybe they were just unwilling. James Devine’s grin when he told me he “didn’t have a clue” what the fiscal cliff was all about was disarming—but it was saddening and even a little bit chilling. How could someone live and listen through the countless news cycles of the last couple of months—during which the media have talked sometimes of little else—and not be ready at least to take a stab at the matter? And, yes, this man was quite specific when he said he had voted in last month’s election.

My Walmart poll this time around had virtually nothing to do with agreement or disagreement on the issues. This wasn’t about whether a Democratic president or a Republican Congress has the best ideas for rebuilding our nation’s economy. I would have enjoyed such a discussion, for sure. But this was emptiness. Walmart, Schmalmart! These were folks who seemed focused on little more than getting past the Salvation Army bell ringer without having to look him in the eye.

And maybe also getting past that guy from WORLD Magazine with all those nosy and pesky questions. Well, you didn’t get by me either! Have a thoughtful Christmas.

Pitifully taught

Most Americans know absolutely nothing about the Hobby Lobby case

Issue date: July 26, 2014

I knew, right after hearing the first details of the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision on June 30, 2014, that the issues were nuanced enough to need some careful explaining. So just how confused might the American public be? And would the mainstream media offer genuine help on that front—or would they just make matters worse?

To find out, I decided to pull out my favorite research tool—a visit to the sidewalk in front of my local Walmart. My wife reminded me that, with no Hobby Lobby store here in Asheville, I might end up with a lot of blank stares. Folks simply wouldn’t know what I was talking about. I hoped for a little more civic interest and engagement.

My wife, though, was right. Only four of the first 20 people I asked had a clue what I meant when I asked: “What would you say was the main issue in the Hobby Lobby case that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on earlier this week?” Of those four, none was close to getting things right. Instead, all four answered by asking something like: “Was that the decision where the government said contraceptives are illegal?”

I’ll admit that asking all these random shoppers for a detailed analysis of a complex court case might be expecting a bit much. And maybe the sight of a white-haired septuagenarian quizzing Thursday morning Walmart shoppers about contraceptives was a little off-putting.

But I wasn’t pursuing a carefully researched legal brief. Just get the topic approximately right, I asked. Yet 80 percent of my sample couldn’t even discuss the matter; and the other 20 percent got it all wrong. I have no reason to think a national survey, including thousands of respondents, would be any more encouraging.

For the record, here’s what I was looking for: The Hobby Lobby decision held basically that the government cannot require a closely held private business to provide specified aspects of healthcare for its employees if such provision violates the company’s religious conscience, so long as those specific aspects of care remain otherwise available to the employees. And the court specifically based its decision not on the First Amendment of the Constitution’s “Bill of Rights” but on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.

But the nation’s media provided precious little help to the American public in reaching a clear understanding of the decision. When President Obama (through his press secretary), presumed presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid all blasted the Hobby Lobby decision as an expression of conservatives’ continuing “War on Women,” most of the networks, the newspapers, and the magazines gave such spokesmen free rein. No challenging questions, few follow-ups. Here and there, a minor exception—like the liberal Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe, who cautioned his colleagues that the Hobby Lobby decision was “not as radical” as some of them were saying. But Tribe was almost alone in his media quarters, flashing such an amber caution light.

Much more typical was the claim, and this assertion was aired in only slightly varied form at least half a dozen times on MSNBC and PBS, that “this ruling allows bosses to force their personal beliefs on employees.” Or try the colorful conclusion that after such a decision, we can expect next to see the court carving out special permission for Amish farmers to sell unpasteurized milk. Scare language was everywhere.

All of which is why the random gathering of people in front of Walmart last week tended to be so tongue-tied. The nation’s media, whose duty it is to provide thoughtful information, had instead served up a steady diet of misinformation. And having been so pitifully taught, the people were now quite unprepared to identify something so simple as the main issue defining the Hobby Lobby case. Sadly, the few who got close still tended to get it very wrong.

It’s a pretty rare thing that when teachers get things terribly wrong, their students do any better. I’ll try to remember that the next time I head out for a Walmart opinion poll.

Double trouble

With one action, the president offended both those who want less immigration and those who respect the law

Issue date: Dec. 27, 2014

Folks who claim that President Barack Obama is overly consumed with political considerations have a tough riddle to solve: If politics are so all-important, why does the president keep doing things that are so politically awkward?

Specifically, why did Obama respond to his disastrous midterm election results with an executive order on immigration that he should have known would be colossally unpopular? If he’d just headed from the White House on the morning of Nov. 5, 2014, to the nearest Walmart, he could have learned all he needed to know.

I can tell you that, of course, because that’s what I do, from time to time, to ground myself in political reality. I did it again last week—and, boy, were the Walmart shoppers ready to talk! Obama would not have liked what he heard.

I’ve done these very folksy and informal surveys at least 15 or 20 times in the last 15 years—but never have I heard folks respond so lopsidedly on one side of the issue. “Tell me, please,” I would ask while waving my right hand in a shopper’s face. “If over here on this side we put up a big stop sign in front of those who want to enter the U.S. from other countries, but over here on the other side” (now I’d start welcoming them with my left hand) “we promise that we’ve got room and that we’ll find a way to take care of you—on that spectrum, where would you put yourself?”

There was no pussyfooting among my respondents. Not a single person said anything resembling a cautious “Well, I’d have to think about that.” “Let me tell you straight up,” said Elmo Faren. “I don’t mean no harm to nobody. Fact is, it may say more bad about me than it does about somebody who’s illegal. But when you’re full up, you’re full up. We’re full up. I’ve got a job, but it’s been 10 years since I’ve had anything like a real job that pays me enough to live on. Ask me—and I guess you did!—and I’ll tell you we’re headed the wrong direction.”

Ronda Brockwell played the same tune. “So,” I asked her, “what do you think of Mr. Obama’s executive order protecting 5 million immigrants from deportation? Do you have any advice for him?” “Well, he was wrong,” Ronda said. “He should be asking God for advice—and obviously, he’s not doing that.”

Indeed, in 28 short conversations with Walmart shoppers, I didn’t find a single one who was ready to defend the latest Obama pronouncements on immigration. (There was, to be sure, the attractive Hispanic family, with a full shopping cart. They knew just enough English to learn what my mission was—and then graciously argued that they were late and had to hurry on.)

I wasn’t surprised by the proportion of the other 27 who just seemed “anti-immigration.” “Enough is enough!” said Vickie Gaddy. And then she emphasized by repeating: “Enough is enough! Let’s just leave it at that.” Another shopper, who didn’t want me to use her name, said simply: “Charity begins at home, doesn’t it? We have enough serious needs right here.”

I was startled, though, by the number, certainly exceeding half, who stressed that their exception to Mr. Obama’s late November executive orders is based on what they see as an extralegal, or even illegal, process. “I’m a believer in a relatively low hurdle for those who want to come in on a legal basis,” suggested David Phelan. “But what we have right now is chaos. Let them build an orderly structure for those who want citizenship, and then follow that structure.” Jacqueline Marlowe agreed: “Let them follow the rules. I want them to feel welcome. But they have to do it legally.”

So the president, it seemed, was with a single action sticking his finger in the eyes of two huge political blocks. On the one hand, he was offending those who simply don’t want more immigration. But on the other, he was proving just as offensive to those who wouldn’t mind welcoming more outsiders—but want to achieve that end in an orderly manner.

But why alienate both groups? Where, in all this, is the always-calculating politician? What is the political benefit when even a crude sidewalk survey suggests that he’s chosen an altogether losing proposition? I just don’t get it.

Editor’s note (Feb. 9, 2024): We include two additional survey columns below.

Back to Walmart

In candidate survey, ordinary folks didn’t exactly inspire confidence

Issue date: April 2, 2016

I am in no sense a political expert. But this year, what does that matter? Neither is anyone else. That realization is all it took for me, a few days ago, to head out again to my favorite spot just outside the front door of my neighborhood Walmart. I wanted to find out what the locals were thinking.

If you’re new to this column, it may help you to know that every now and then I try to forget the experts and go instead to the ordinary people—the folks, for instance, who shop at Walmart. If it’s the experts who have messed things up so badly, maybe we commoners have something to contribute to the process of setting things straight again.

Maybe. But maybe not. If this week’s visit to Walmart is any indicator, we’d better keep looking for our savior.

I talked briefly with 31 shoppers. My pitch was simple and, I think, polite and nonthreatening: “Ma’am, may I interrupt you for less than a minute? I write for a national magazine, and I’d like your opinion.” And then I showed them a simple sheet with the faces of Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Ted Cruz. “If the election were held today, which of these would you vote for?” And if they were bold enough to point to one of the four, I pressed a bit further: “Can you tell me why?”

I was surprised that only four of the 31 declined my request. “That’s private information, between me and God,” said Michael F.—and I agreed with him that we should be thankful to live in a country where that is so. “I have a whole week before our primary, don’t I?” said Angela M. “Don’t hurry me.” Monica G. confused me when she said how much she likes most of Trump’s ideas—“But he’s way too pushy, and I just think I won’t vote.”

But here’s what made my knees knock while gathering my little (and statistically meaningless) survey. Out of the 27 folks who pointed to a favorite candidate, only four said they wanted Hillary Clinton and two preferred Ted Cruz. All the remaining 21 split almost evenly between Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Yes, the two improbable candidates I referred to in my Jan. 22 column as “crazy uncles” were clearing the table right here in the mountains of North Carolina.

But if the exercise was depressing in numerical results, it was much more so with reference to the respondents’ reasons. Austin B. minced no words. He was for Sanders and forcefully declared, almost as if he’d been rehearsing his answer: “It’s time for the U.S. to join the progressive folks in Europe and the rest of the world with a grown-up civilization.” Irma F. set the tone when she asked offhandedly: “Don’t you think it’s Hillary’s turn?”

If there was a theme of thoughtfulness running through the comments, respondents seemed to worry most about honesty. Matt R. was hedging his bets, for example, when he pointed quickly to Trump but observed, “If he’s telling the truth, maybe he can do something. But if he’s not, well then, he’ll be just like all the others.” Jan S. said she preferred Sanders because “he seems most honest,” but drew a blank when I asked for an example or two of what she meant.

Halfway through the exercise, I was struck with how shallow and frivolous this exercise really was. That’s when Tim Paschall, Walmart’s assistant manager for the day, came out and told me I’d have to move on. Divisive activities like mine annoyed their shoppers, he said, and one woman had said she wouldn’t come back if I was allowed to “accost” people the way I was. So just to keep the record straight, bear in mind that Walmart shoppers don’t carry the whole blame for the collapse of our culture. Indeed, the last 16 responses came from folks at Aldi grocery store and Lowe’s home improvement center.

And if your heart is heavy over a presidential race that seems consumed with thin process and knows so little of substance, keep this in mind: The common folk of society may have no more extensive a claim on wisdom and virtue than the experts do.

Surveying our future

Today’s teens appear frightfully ignorant of America’s founding principles

Issue date: Oct. 14, 2017

Next time you think things have gotten intolerably bad, and that the world is headed for hell in a handbasket, just think what things might be like if all decision-making were handed to today’s teenagers—the relatively young adults who a decade or two from now, whether you like it or not, will indeed be in the driver’s seat.

Two issues prompted me to worry along those lines.

The first was the persistent insistence of several major polls that American teenagers are quite ready—at least compared with their forebears—to use force to calm things down when freedom of speech seems to be getting out of hand.

The second came when I decided to do a reality check by heading out for one of my traditional Walmart polls. Should I really trust Gallup, Pew, Barna, and all the rest of these pollsters?

Except that this time, I would make it a point to steer clear of adults. And to enhance my chances of talking just to teenagers, I would simply skip Walmart this time and head for the nearest mall. That, my wife suggested, would almost automatically bring me face-to-face with the teenagers I wanted to query.

Well, I found the teenagers, for sure. They still seem to love the mall. I was able to chat briefly with 35 of them. But no, I’m not ready to turn things over to them. At least not anytime soon. On this issue of freedom of speech, for example, I couldn’t find a single teenager who had a clue where freedom of speech is declared to be the right of any American citizen. “I’m not sure,” responded Tom, a lanky redhead who said he’s just starting his senior year in a local public high school. “Isn’t that something that comes with our being part of the United Nations?”

(One inalienable right almost all these teenagers seemed to think was automatic was the right not to have me include their last names. For a handful, that was almost a necessity, with family structures so fragmented that hyphenated family names were common but hard to nail down.)

How would their lives be different, I asked these young citizens, if what we call “freedom of the press” were to disappear from public life? “Does that mean,” suggested Holly, a rising junior, “that someone coming here from Mexico wouldn’t be able to print a newspaper here in Spanish?” Not everyone in her little group of friends agreed with her.

Second Amendment issues didn’t seem to matter much in my admittedly informal survey. When I used that terminology, not one of my respondents knew what I was talking about. When I suggested it had to do with citizens’ rights to own guns, disinterest ruled.

Intuition told me that to go back in hopes of discovering a thoughtful discussion about freedom of religion would be to draw a blank. Intuition was right. If these kids weren’t at least a tad religious to start with, it was unlikely that religious freedom would be terribly important to them. And frankly, no one in the whole bunch struck me as part of some church’s youth group out for the afternoon. “I know some people are prejudiced,” Amanda responded to my question about religious tolerance, “but as long as we don’t try to embarrass and convert other people, why should anyone be bothered?” Amanda didn’t strike me as someone hoping to spend next summer studying Supreme Court nuances.

My point, though, was never to see how many silly responses I might uncover. I wanted instead to get a fair sense of what kind of historical, analytical, and political tools these young people might be ready to apply to public affairs when the present generation of voters and policy-setters has disappeared over the horizon. And the sense I got, in my admittedly simplistic survey, was hardly encouraging.

But if today’s younger set isn’t ready for a halfway intelligent conversation about the Bill of Rights, what’s going to happen when we’re dealing with matters like nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles?

Joel Belz

Joel Belz (1941–2024) was WORLD’s founder and a regular contributor of commentary for WORLD Magazine and WORLD Radio. He served as editor, publisher, and CEO for more than three decades at WORLD and was the author of Consider These Things. Visit WORLD’s memorial tribute page.

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