Recently as I was poring over old public opinion research on American’s views on astrology, I surfaced a survey that blew my mind. A 1998 Gallup Poll took advantage of the media interest in astrology after it was revealed that Nancy Reagan had a personal astrologer. The survey asked a number of questions about how Nancy Reagan’s purported interest in astrology had shifted people’s views on astrology, government, and the Reagan presidency.
You may remember that Nancy Reagan’s interest in astrology was largely verified in 1990 by astrologer Joan Quigley, in her tell-all book What Does Joan Say? and then covered by Time Magazine. Nancy Reagan was “outed” by Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff, Donald Regan, who started working for the President in 1985, but notoriously feuded with her. When he resigned in 1987, Regan wrote a tell-all book about his experience that mentioned Quigley’s role in the White House and Nancy Reagan’s reliance on her. This 1988 People Magazine article discusses the media frenzy that resulted. And, here is Joan Quigley speaking for herself so you can see her perspective:
Of course, it’s impossible to know whether to take Quigley at her word in terms of her influence on Nancy Reagan and the President, but you have to assume that some of her advice was followed.
So, in this context, in 1998 the Gallup poll asked three questions about this topic:
- Recently, Nancy Reagan’s interest in astrology has been in the news. What are your own views on astrology? Do you personally believe in it, or not?
- Has your opinion (of Ronald Reagan) become more favorable or less favorable as a result (of reports about astrology in the White House)?
- Have the reports about astrology in the White House had much of an effect on your overall opinion of Ronald Reagan, or not?
Interestingly, when asked in conjunction with this prompt about Nancy, only 12% of respondents said that they believe in astrology. Perhaps a concrete example makes the larger group of Americans who purport to believe (25-30%) in astrology to rethink their response.
Only 1% of respondents said that Nancy Reagan’s interest in astrology improved their favorable view of the President, while 17% said it made them view him less favorably. Finally, 19% said that it had made them think differently about Ronald Reagan and his presidency.
A CBS News/New York Times Poll (May 1988) asked in a similar vein: Do you think President Reagan should use horoscopes or astrology to help him make government policy decisions? 81% of those polled said that the President should not, and only a small percentage of folks (6%) said yes, or it depends (6%). I would like to meet those 6% of folks who said “yes.”
It seems like most Americans consult astrology or are familiar with it, and “believe” in it in the most general ways. But when asked to apply it to their own lives or to something like government decisions, people’s tendency to believe in it gets diluted. This confirms my suspicion that the 25% of Americans who believe in astrology, don’t entirely know what they are believing in or that belief is somewhat lukewarm. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t susceptible to greater understanding, but it may be the case that people aren’t thinking very hard beyond sun sign astrology and magazine horoscopes to something more sophisticated.