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A Look At Those Who Have Influence Over Others in the USA - 2003-07-29

MR. MORALES: The most influential people in the United States -- the ones who tell their neighbors what to buy and which politicians to support -- are not necessarily the people you would expect.

That's the finding of a new book on public opinion and leadership called: The Influentials: One American in Ten Tells the Other Nine How to Vote, Where to Eat, and What to Buy written by Ed Keller and Jon Berry. Mr. Berry is Vice President of Roper ASW, a global marketing, polling and consulting firm. He joins us from his office in New York.

Also with us is John DiIulio -- Frederic Fox Leadership Professor of Politics, Religion and Civil Society at the University of Pennsylvania. He joins us from his home in Philadelphia.

Let's start with Jon Berry. Who are "The Influentials" and why are they important?

MR. BERRY: What we've identified through the years is that there are Americans who are at the center of the national conversation -- not only about what's going on the society broadly, like what's going on in politics and government, but also what's going on in their communities and what's going on in the consumer marketplace. And it's basically a reflection of participatory democracy, but also participatory democracy "at large" because there is a lot of change that takes place in American society that happens well beyond what you see in the newspapers about the doings at City Hall or in Washington. The definition that we [at Roper] use to identify these people is those who "show up and make their opinions known." We use a check-off list of things people have done in the past year ranging from going to a meeting on town or school affairs to being on a committee to being the head of a club or organization, writing letters to the editor of a newspaper, calling talk radio shows, making a speech or writing articles.

MR. MORALES: John DiIulio, these "Influentials" make up about 10% of the US population today. Are there any historical parallels?

MR. DIIULIO: I think that if you look at it historically, there have always been groups of so-called "local notables" and so forth, people who were the activists in their communities and took the lead in serving on what we would today call local school boards or other kinds of civic associations ... people who were connected across a wide range of communities, not just their own ethnic or religious group, but across many groups and people who were looked to by others for their opinions on politics, books, movies and other kinds of entertainment. So I think there are many interesting historical parallels.

MR. BERRY: Actually, you can even go back to the founding of the country. For example, Benjamin Franklin started the first public library and first volunteer fire department. [Alexis] de Tocqueville, when traveling across the United States [in the early 1830s] remarked, among other things, on a concept of 'self interest properly understood' -- that Americans seem to have the ability to find the intersection between their own self interests and and the interests of the community and how that brought people together. It's something I'm not sure that has sunk into the broader consciousness of the country yet [i.e., been realized by most Americans], but for a number of years now we have been seeing a real resurgence in Americans' involvement in local community affairs. A lot of it has been through organizations and groups that have come together, for example, to raise funds for arts programs in local schools or environmental organizations that have been started.

MR. MORALES: Professor DiIulio, let me follow up on that. How much do these "Influentials" actually reflect American ideals, values and institutions?

MR. DIIULIO: I think they pretty much do. The portrait in the book of "The Influentials" is that they are pretty balanced souls. They are economically motivated, but not obsessed with money. They're family focused, but civilly engaged. They're technology friendly, but they live real and not 'virtual' lives. They're not couch potatoes. They are very happy to live in this country, but they are considerably international in their perspective. And with respect to political ideals, while they are somewhat more conservative than they are liberal -- self-reported, self-described [i.e., as they describe themselves in polls and questionnaires], the partisan breakdown is almost even between Democrats and Republicans with about a quarter being Independents. And that's pretty much a reflection of the population as a whole.

MR. MORALES: Jon Berry, let me get your take on that.

MR. BERRY: There's a sort of 'center of gravity' to the ideas in society that keeps things moving along despite what you see on the fringes and the things that often get reported in newspapers. We [at Roper] think that this is basically where you find it [i.e., the 'center of gravity'], within this group. They manage to balance a lot of different ideas. We did a values analysis of this group subsequent to the book. And we thought that it was pretty striking because what we saw as the seams [i.e., main threads running through this group] were not so much status, prestige or one-upsmanship, but personal relationships, "I will get involved in the schools, for example, because it will create a better educational environment for my kids and for my neighbors' and friends' kids;" exploration, "I will try this new idea or go to a new place on vacation, for example, because it's interesting and I will learn something from it;" and integrity, being authentic and true to yourself.

MR. MORALES: Jon, let me stay with you for just a moment. How do these "Influentials" get and spread ideas?

MR. BERRY: Basically, they're "the ones who show up." And they literally have a broader set of connections. We did one survey in which we found that they have the longest Christmas card lists [of people to whom they write]. And that's sort of a shorthand way of describing the group. They are the folks who know the most people. And from that, they have an ability to hear things -- to learn -- about what's going on. And they have a network to disperse information. Sometimes it's done deliberately, if there's a political campaign or issue that people are very concerned about. They'll sit down at their computer and send out an e-mail to 50 or 100 people. A lot of times though, what we found through in-depth interviews with "Influentials" is that there are informal exchanges of information, getting to know people. For example, when you're sitting down before a school board or business meeting, you look at the person next to you -- you might recognize them, you might not -- and you look for ways to connect with them. These are the kinds of things we often do when we're just getting acquainted. The often ask: "What did you do this weekend? Where are you going? What do you think of that person? What do you think of this idea?" And through that subtle interaction, we think that there's a lot of really powerful change that happens in society.

MR. MORALES: John DiIulio, these "Influentials" have been called "the early majority" [i.e., trend setters]. Do we have a sense of how politicians and businesses have been able to tap into this group?

MR. DIIULIO: There is a lot of research that suggests that politicians more and more have understood that making mass appeals is somewhat less effective than targeting their message and looking for what this book very finely describes as "The Influentials" among us. These people, these citizen leaders are largely self-motivated, self-selected. Their leadership ranks seem largely open to diverse college graduates of just about any age who have the drive, the wit, the creative optimism, as Mr. Berry said, to "show up" and get engaged. And I think that politicians have learned over the past several election cycles that these are the people who are actually in the end most likely to register and vote. So it's important to sort of narrow cast political appeals to this group. Now, that may have adverse consequences in terms of broader concerns about democracy. But they [i.e., politicians] certainly have, I think, begun to pick up on this reality.

========================================================================== In Part Two, VOA's Victor Morales examines who shapes US public opinion and what it means for American society.

MR. MORALES: They're sometimes called the "early majority" -- the 10% of American adults who often lead the way in what U-S consumers will buy and how the nation will vote. They're educated and active in their communities. And according to a new book, they have a profound effect on American society.

Mr. Berry is Vice President of Roper ASW, a global marketing, polling and consulting firm. He joins us from his office in New York.

Also with us is John DiIulio -- Frederic Fox Leadership Professor of Politics, Religion and Civil Society at the University of Pennsylvania. Professor DiIulio served as Director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives under President Bush. He joins us from his home in Philadelphia.

Professor DiIulio, with only about 21-million "Influentials" in the United States, how does that sit with our traditional notions of democracy?

MR. DIIULIO: I think that on the one hand, one could look at it superficially and say, "Gee, if only one-in-ten persons is exercising this kind of influence and probably, then, subsets within that fortunate fraction are creating consumer trends and determining what gets on the political or public policy agenda or mobilizing social movements, that is a bad thing." But actually, if you look at the book and the data, and the cognate studies that have been done over the years and step back a bit, I think what you see is that what we have is not a leadership class that is based on wealth, education or birth. It's not a closed aristocracy of wealth, education or birth. Again, these are people, citizen leaders, who care to show up and care to get involved. So obviously, the intensity of their preferences, their openness to multiple and competing ideas, their willingness to interact across ethnic, racial and other lines . . . all of these things, I think, actually bode well.

It would be nice, if it were possible, to be sure that there were some sort of routine circulation among "The Influentials," that is, the old sound of the dusty boots walking up the stairs and the polished shoes walking down the staircase. But there is some evidence, I think, even within the analysis in this book, that there is a good deal of social, political and other mobility.

MR. MORALES: Jon Berry, let me get your take on that.

MR. BERRY: There's a fairly high turn over in this group. People will come in and get involved in an issue, and some of them will move on. In fact, we have some neat stories. For example, a woman got involved at first by starting a coffee klatsch in her child's elementary school to connect moms with each other so they could share their concerns. She went on to get involved on the school board, school committees and the PTA [i.e., Parent-Teacher Association]. And now, some years later, she is a village trustee. And she was asked to run for village trustee specifically because people wanted to be able to bring the school into the political process in the village.

Overall, we found that one-in-three "Influentials" had been involved [in community affairs] for less than one year. And, I think, about half of them have been involved for five years or less. From a market research standpoint, our [i.e., Roper ASW] interest is in being able to communicate from a business standpoint. We communicate with large corporations, Fortune 500 companies. And we think that this group ["The Influentials"] is a particularly dynamic and interesting group to follow. They always have new ideas that are being brought into it. It's not a group that gets stale.

MR. MORALES: I would like to ask each of you, beginning with Jon Berry: Where are "The Influentials" leading America?

MR. BERRY: In technology, it's a very interesting time right now because despite the slump in the economy and the dot-com bust in the stock market, there has been a lot of interesting movement in technology that we've seen in this group. The adoption of broadband high speed Internet access which enhances productivity, for example. This group is very much about efficiency; they're trying to do a lot of things so that they can keep up their involvement in the community and keep up their connections with family and friends. About one-in-three "Influentials" have broadband Internet access right now. Wireless communications are very interesting to them. And even though there are a lot of economic concerns right now and that there are a lot of institutions about which there were concerns 10-to-15 years ago such as marriage, family and education, we have seen a sense of optimism beginning to come back. So it's not a black and white picture out there right now. And this makes it a pretty interesting time for us [at Roper].

MR. MORALES: And Professor DiIulio, from your perspective, where are they leading the country?

MR. DIIULIO: These "Influentials," in the political and civic realms, are sort of a more demanding consumer, if you will. That is to say, it's not as easy as it once was, if it ever was easy, for politicians and political campaigns to put out ads -- positive or negative -- and expect the people who are most likely to show up and be mobilized to vote and participate in campaigns to just go along with that. They demand quality, in effect, of political campaigns and candidates in way that we haven't really seen before. And given the technology at their disposal and given the information resources at their disposal and given their ability to extend the networks that they naturally are a part of and are leaders of, it's going to be more and more difficult for politicians and policymakers to put out products that aren't consistent with the core values and beliefs of this group, which is really sort of the leadership of the median voter -- driving things to the center. We hear a lot about the extremes in American politics all of the time -- ideological extremes, partisan extremes. But these folks [i.e., "The Influentials"] represent the center. And I think there is evidence of various kinds to suggest that politicians and political campaigns and electoral strategies are becoming more and more sensitive to that reality.

MR. MORALES: Gentlemen, we have about a minute left and I would like to ask each of you, beginning with Professor John DiIulio: What is the most important lesson to take away from this book?

MR. DIIULIO: In terms of the civic implications, I think it's good news that there is a group of Americans out there, a very fluid group, who are taking on responsibility, who are volunteering, who are getting involved and who are functioning as citizen leaders in very much the way the classic text book democratic ideal would have one hope. So I think the news from this book is good.

MR. MORALES: And Jon Berry, you get the last word.

MR. BERRY: Thanks [Victor] and thanks, John. Two things: One, for people who have not already gotten the message. I think that the message to the public is that if you don't like what you see, go out and get involved. And what was really interesting to us [at Roper] as we did interviews with these individuals [i.e., "The Influentials"] was that across the political spectrum -- from libertarians to student activists, Republicans to Democrats -- everyone said that they had an abiding belief that if there was something they saw that they didn't like, they wanted to get involved to try to change it. The second message is for people in politics and in corporate America. If you're not paying attention to this group, it really behooves you -- both from the point of your own self interest and probably, in a lot of cases, your survival -- to understand more about this group because they really are the vital center that is moving the country forward.

MR. MORALES: Gentlemen, thank you both for joining us: John DiIulio -- Frederic Fox Leadership Professor of Politics, Religion and Civil Society at the University of Pennsylvania; and Jon Berry, Vice President of Roper ASW and author of the book: The Influentials, published by The Free Press.