It's getting to the point where I wish I could install some filter on my computer to block out all results of public polling. Between the fickleness, the contradictions and the deep vein of ignorance that underlies it all, this information is really as useless as it is impossible for officials to ignore. Here are just two of many topical examples:
Skepticism of global warming is sharply up:
As U.S. negotiators fly to the Danish capital to forge a political agreement based on President Obama's proposal to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by about 17 percent, most of the American public doesn't know what the talks are about, according to the Harris survey.
Just 51 percent of adults questioned said they believed carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases would cause the Earth's average temperature to increase. Two years ago, fully 71 percent of respondents linked greenhouse gases directly to global warming.
But so is support for Congress to pass cap and trade legislation to mitigate its effects:
An Ipsos Public Affairs survey finds that 52% of respondents support a cap and trade plan, similar to that working through Congress, with 41% opposing the measure.
The poll also finds that messaging is make or break for the initiative: Support drops to 43%, with 55% opposed, when cap and trade raises monthly electrical bills by $25, but support jumps to 60%, with 36% opposed, when that same spike in prices accompanies the creation of "a significant number of 'green' jobs."
On health care, a majority of respondents oppose reform...
--Voters disapprove 52 – 38 percent of the health care reform proposal under consideration in Congress, and they disapprove 56 – 38 percent of President Obama’s handling of health care, down from 53 – 41 percent in a November 19 survey.
--American voters say 63 – 30 percent that extending health insurance to all will raise their cost of health care, although they are split 47 – 46 percent on whether they are willing to pay more to make sure everyone is covered.
...but support the public option that's considered the most politically untenable aspect of the measure:
The new CNN poll like many others finds greater support (53% to 46%) for a "public option" than for the Senate Health Care Bill which just 36% support, and 61% oppose.
Not that they understand the public option: large majorities admit that they couldn't explain it to friends. The explanation behind this illuminates much of what's wrong with our entire system at the place where politics, policy and issues of substantive governance intersect:
This is one of those revelations that is newsworthy without being very new. Polling on the public option has long revealed that Americans loved the idea of a government-run insurance program -- until they hear any possible counter-argument. That's because polls aren't good barometers of popular support. They're good evidence that Americans feel perfectly comfortable taking hard stands on ideas they don't totally get.
Back in September the Washington Post released a poll that taught lawmakers this: (1) A majority (55 percent) support a government-sponsored health care plan. (2) A minority (46 percent) support health care reform overall. (3) A plurality (50 percent) support health care reform overall if you take out the public option. Killing the most popular part of health care reform makes health care reform more popular? I mean ... you figure that one out for yourself.
I guess I should add schizophrenia to the indictment of short attention span and ignorance laid out above. We despise the government, but want it to solve all our problems. We pay too much in taxes but will see services cut, even demonstrably wasteful ones, over our dead bodies. We're always for forceful response and bold action, until reality confounds us again by not immediately conforming to what we want it to be or, above all, moving as quickly as we wish it to.
It's easy and somewhat accurate to blame the media for this: people who should know better (but perhaps don't) cite these poll results and countless others--the public opposes the war in Afghanistan but approves of Obama's escalation speech--and present them as meaningful. The real kick in the teeth is that, in the sense that they bear some relationship to electoral outcomes and thus help set parameters for what government actually does, they do mean *something.* But parsing out informed opinion from received wisdom and context is almost impossible. At this moment, the public is in a foul mood about pretty much everything: right-wingers still hate the President and the Congressional majorities, those on the left feel mostly deep disappointment and betrayal, folks in the middle perceive little difference from two years ago in terms of lack of movement on key issues, and the millions suffering economically are just in despair and, I fear, increasingly receptive to demagogic messages. This helps explain why not only Obama is less popular than he was ten months ago, but a bunch of his possible Republican opponents in 2012 are as well.
It's no fun to admit this, but between official venality and mass public imbecility I find myself increasingly pessimistic that we'll ever have a functional political system again.