Here's some good timing: the same day that the scared-of-their-own-shadow Democrats met for their aptly named winter retreat and the Tea Party people ("The other White Party!"?) convened for a weekend of rage, Slate details the national dumbassery:
Anybody who says you can't have it both ways clearly hasn't been spending much time reading opinion polls lately. One year ago, 59 percent of the American public liked the stimulus plan, according to Gallup. A few months later, with the economy still deeply mired in recession, a majority of the same size said Obama was spending too much money on it. There's nothing wrong with changing your mind, of course, but opinion polls over the last year reflect something altogether more troubling: a country that simultaneously demands and rejects action on unemployment, deficits, health care, climate change, and a whole host of other major problems. Sixty percent of Americans want stricter regulations of financial institutions. But nearly the same proportion says we're suffering from too much regulation on business. That kind of illogic—or, if you prefer, susceptibility to rhetorical manipulation—is what locks the status quo in place.
At the root of this kind of self-contradiction is our historical, nationally characterological ambivalence about government. We want Washington and the states to fix all of our problems now. At the same time, we want government to shrink, spend less, and reduce our taxes. We dislike government in the abstract: According to CNN, 67 percent of people favor balancing the budget even when the country is in a recession or a war, which is madness. But we love government in the particular: Even larger majorities oppose the kind of spending cuts that would reduce projected deficits, let alone eliminate them. Nearly half the public wants to cancel the Obama stimulus, and a strong majority doesn't want another round of it. But 80-plus percent of people want to extend unemployment benefits and to spend more money on roads and bridges. There's another term for that stuff: more stimulus spending.
This is why I don't think much of polls: for the answers to have any guiding relevance to elected officials, it seems the answering public should have some idea about the facts on the question on which they're opining. But all we know is what we want: "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."
Human nature being what it is, it's actually neither surprising nor, in the larger sense, particularly distressing that so much of public opinion seems indistinguishable from a teething two year-old. Most people don't have the time or inclination to follow the news closely, and given the imperatives of for-profit media, what they mostly do see when they're paying attention is process-guided conflict freighted with despicably parochial considerations, not a clash of principles or ideals. The Founders intuitively understood this, which is why we have a representative democracy with a wealth of checks and balances (probably more than is good for us in a moment when partisan forces act in bad faith) rather than a plebiscitary system or something more directly responsive to popular will at any given moment. Ugly as it was when George W. Bush spoke in early 2005 about the "accountability moment" he'd faced and survived in the 2004 election, he wasn't wrong: that was the electorate's chance to express a judgment on his record. On an everyday basis, public opinion simply shouldn't matter very much.
But even the core leap of faith--that the electorate generally gets it right when called upon to do so--comes into question when polling so strongly suggests a foundational ignorance of the issues. That's doubly true when politicians gleefully fuel and exploit that ignorance:
The politicians thriving at the moment are the ones who embody this live-for-the-today mentality, those best able to call for the impossible with a straight face. Take Scott Brown, the newly elected Senator from Massachusetts. Brown wants government to take in less revenue: He has signed a no-new-taxes pledge and called for an across-the-board tax cut on families and businesses. But Brown doesn't want government to spend any less money: He opposes reductions in Medicare payments and all other spending cuts of any significance. He says we can lower deficits above 10 percent of GDP—the largest deficits since World War II, deficits so large that they threaten our future as the world's leading military and economic power—simply by cutting government waste. No sensible person who has spent five minutes looking at the budget thinks that's remotely possible. The charitable interpretation is that Brown embodies naive optimism, an approach to politics that Ronald Reagan left as one of his more dubious legacies to Republican Party. A better explanation is that Brown is consciously pandering to the public's ignorance and illusions the same way the rest of his Republican colleagues are.
I don't mean to suggest that honesty is what separates the two parties. Increasingly, the crucial distinction is between the minority of serious politicians in either party who are prepared to speak directly about our choices, on the one hand, and the majority who indulge the public's delusions, on the other. I would put President Obama and his economic team in the first group, along with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Republicans are more indulgent of the public's unrealism in general, but Democrats have spent years fostering their own forms of denial. Where Republicans encourage popular myths about taxes, spending, and climate change, Democrats tend to stoke our fantasies about the sustainability of entitlement spending as well as about the cost of new programs.
I really like this typology of public figures. Unfortunately--and this gets back to the severe structural problems that I and others see bedeviling us right now--the incentives are all lined up against those who try to be honest and constructive. This past week, Republican Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin did something I think unique for his party since it's been in opposition: he proposed a serious long-term budget that would eliminate the federal deficit. I don't think it's a great proposal on the merits: Ryan wants to privatize Medicare, and do so in a way that would render the program far less effective, and revive the private accounts model for Social Security that Bush tried to push forward five years ago. But it's an actual attempt to grapple with problems. And Democrats are attacking it to score political points in a manner roughly as shameless as the Republican barrage against the proposed health care reforms.
Thus it becomes that much more difficult for Ryan or any other Republican who might be inclined to propose something necessary but politically painful. And we continue to want ever more from government while putting in ever less.