NOONAN LAMENTS ‘THE ADAM LAMBERT PROBLEM’…. Pollsters routinely ask Americans whether they believe the country is, in general, on the right track or the wrong track. Politicos tend to take the number pretty seriously — it offers a peek into the public’s overall attitudes on the economy, politics, the future, etc.

For the first third of the year, the right-track/wrong-track numbers were moving quickly in the right direction. But over the summer, they peaked, leveled off, and began to drift in a pessimistic direction again.

The Wall Street Journal‘s Peggy Noonan thinks she knows why. (via Steve M.)

The economy has always had an impact on the general American mood, and the poll offered data to buttress the reader’s assumption that economic concerns are driving pessimism…. But something tells me this isn’t all about money. It’s possible, and I can’t help but think likely, that the poll is also about other things, and maybe even primarily about other things.

Sure, Americans are worried about long-term debt and endless deficits. We’re worried about taxes and the burden we’re bequeathing to our children, and their children.

But we are concerned about other things, too, and there are often signs in various polls that those things may dwarf economic concerns. Americans are worried about the core and character of the American nation, and about our culture.

It is one thing to grouse that dreadful people who don’t care about us control our economy, but another, and in a way more personal, thing to say that people who don’t care about us control our culture. In 2009 this was perhaps most vividly expressed in the Adam Lambert Problem.

I tend not to keep up such things, but it seems Adam Lambert is a singer, made popular by “American Idol.” Lambert, who is gay, did some racy number on ABC several weeks ago; the network freaked out; and it caused a national stir for about a day and a half.

Noonan, however, sees a larger significance: “Mr. Lambert’s act left viewers feeling not just offended but assaulted…. It cannot be exaggerated, how much Americans feel besieged by the culture of their own country, and to what lengths they have to go to protect their children from it.”

All of this has a certain stay-off-my-lawn quality that’s not especially compelling. It was more than a half-century ago, but I suspect a similar column must have run in 1956, when Elvis swung his hips a little too much on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Professional pollsters can probably speak to this more effectively than I can, but I imagine the right-track/wrong-track numbers have very little to do with a televised musical number that the vast majority of Americans didn’t watch and barely remember. Rather, people probably feel more optimistic when the economy is stronger, jobs are more plentiful, families have health care coverage, parents can afford their kids’ college tuition, and servicemen and women come home from war(s).

This year, the numbers faded, not because of a culture conflict, but because people had higher expectations of how quickly the country would recover from last year’s disasters. When progress was slower than was hoped, optimism for many faded.

About a year ago, the right-track/wrong-track number was the lowest it’s been since the dawn of modern polling — the right-track number fell, frighteningly enough, into the single digits in some major national polls. It wasn’t because wholesome families saw something they perceived as lewd on the American Music Awards show; it was because Noonan’s friends in the Bush White House had run the country into a deep ditch, one which we’re still crawling out of.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.