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April 13, 2006

Common Sense

Perusing some of the recent polling on immigration, Kevin really nails the analysis:

Basically, sizable majorities seem to be in favor of practically everything, and the numbers are fantastically sensitive to question wording. People are in favor of a wall, in favor of a guest worker program, in favor of a path to citizenship, in favor of greater enforcement, in favor of whatever you ask them about. Or maybe not depending on how you phrase the question.

Among the many reasons I'd prefer not to be a politician, navigating the remarkable confusion of your constituents as to their opinions on public policy issues ranks high up there. They're for abortion, for abortion restrictions; for lax immigration laws, in favor of draconian enforcement; for going through the UN, enamored with acting unilaterally; for tax cuts, for spending increases; and on and on it goes. The phrase "mutually exclusive" is absent from America's political vocabulary, as is the concept of a "tradeoff." Conservatives, incidentally, long ago had a light bulb moment about this, and began arguing for a host of self-contradictory ends that sounded good but couldn't possibly prove fiscally sustainable in the long-run, and shouted that public policy experts skeptical about the wisdom of such courses were doubting the unquestionable intelligence of the American people themselves.

Well, yeah. Most Americans are not political professionals, they're not policy analysts, or health economists, or foreign policy experts. Take health savings accounts, which require the diligent socking away of money to be effective. Turns out that half of those who hold them haven't deposited a cent. Turns out ordinary Americans aren't terribly good at self-diagnosing and should probably leave it to medical professionals. Turns out there's a reason we have, and value, doctors in this country. When I point this out, various conservatarian commentors screech that I don't trust the American people, and scoff at how (not) far I'll get with a message about public stupidity.

Well, they may be right. I may not get far. But that doesn't make me, or my countrymen, any more intelligent or capable. Which is why I cringe whenever a politician proposes his "common sense" reform for X. On complex policy matters, sense isn't common, and only demagogues or idiots argue otherwise. Americans can generally understand the best course of action once it's presented, but at the beginning, they can rarely volunteer it.

April 13, 2006 | Permalink


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I suspect that the immigration issue has so many facets that the average person hasn't tried to put together in their mind a comprehensive program that isn't contradictory.

In my mind, that is what parties are for: sort out the choices, build a coherent program, and then explain that to the people somehow - if it is easy enough to explain such that journalists don't mangle the message through inadvertance (allowing for Rovian distortion should be considered as well).

On immigration, the basic facts are not anywhere close to being agreed upon. Does it hurt or help low-paid citizens? How many have been here for what length of time? How many family members are here, and what is their status? Can a wall be feasibly built and at what cost and length of time?

The wonks haven't done their work well enough yet. Opinion can clarify on complex issues, but it takes time and repetition. The opinion on the Iraq war makes that very clear: huge changes in opinion over a few year period. I think the immigration issue is just beginning to be clarified, and sentiment seems to be shifting toward granting legal status to those who have been here a while. Mileage varies.

Since neither party has a clear party position spelled out and uniformly supported within each party, noone can be falted for not understanding how the complex pieces fit together - although the Repubs are clearly less immigrant friendly than the Dems, and the immigrants are learning that difference real quickly.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Apr 13, 2006 11:57:11 AM

Well, Jimmy, most of the immigrants we are discussing are Hispanic and, as a group, are a religious lot....mostly Catholic. So if you court them into your party, how will you reconcile policies with the homosexuals that are now voting Democratic and the atheists?
Moreover, how will you reconcile amnesty with the poor blacks who currently vote largely Democratic since it has been shown to lower the wages of low-end labor?

How will you convice them to go along with abortion upon demand and no prayer in public places when the Pope is telling them otherwise?

Posted by: Fred Jones | Apr 13, 2006 12:47:13 PM

I think it is possible to be in favor of a wall, in favor of a guest worker program, in favor of a path to citizenship and in favor of greater enforcement. These do not seem to me to be mutaully exclusive things.

We could buile a wall, allow people to sign up for a guest worker program, give those people a path to citizenship and have greater enforcement for those who remain undocumented or get past our wall illegally.

Several of the other issues you mention are not mutually exclusive either. I worry that a self described policy wonk can't see this.

Posted by: Dave Justus | Apr 13, 2006 4:41:02 PM

I think this poll shows a great opportunity for smart politicians to guide opinion rather than react to it. It's not a simple question, but I think it shows a great opportunity.

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