Political Alienation in America, 1952-1968

Social scientists and journalistic social commentators have viewed the 1950s as a period of political de-alienation and the 1960s as a period of re-alienation, and have designated a variety of groups as especially alienated in the 1960s–an impatient black population, restive “Middle Americans” and white “ethnics,” rebellious youth, etc. Converse (1972) showed that agreement with three of four survey items measuring political alienation declined in the 1950s and rose in the 1960s, and contended that the rise in the 1960s was fairly uniform across the whole population. This paper first analyzes the degree to which there was differential change in the alienation items across demographically defined social aggregates, and finds little. The lack of differential change might suggest to some that these items are poor measures of alienation. To determine whether this impression is correct, the paper next analyzes attitudinal correlates of alienation in 1968, and shows that for two of the items alienation is higher among those whose attitude preferences deviate from the perceived status quo in either a right-wing or, left-wing direction. For these two alienation items, the paper then shows that changes in the distribution of attitudinal correlates of alienation help to explain the rise in alienation between 1964 and 1968. Thus, the rise in political alienation of the 1960s resulted from increasing discontent with policies and events, but this discontent cut across traditional demographic aggregates.