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June 26, 2006

Provocation of the Day

I find this argument from Jon Chait pretty compelling:

[in 1964,] social psychologists Lloyd A. Free and Hadley Cantril concluded...[that] Americans are ideological conservatives and operational liberals. Everybody's for less spending and regulation in the abstract. When you try to translate that into specifics--say, lower Medicare benefits or looser standards on pollution--voters run screaming in the other direction.

Any debate that takes place at the level of ideological generality, then, inherently favors the right. Liberals can try to come up with slogans of their own. For instance, Clinton's "Community, Opportunity, Responsibility" mantra was one of the better efforts. But that brings you back to the problem of nobody understanding what you believe in.

June 26, 2006 | Permalink

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Everybody's for less spending and regulation in the abstract. When you try to translate that into specifics--say, lower Medicare benefits or looser standards on pollution--voters run screaming in the other direction.

Chait said that? The TNR guy? Whoa... Hot damn, no wonder a guy like him makes the big bucks. I mean, nobody could've figured something like that out without years of intense journalistic training. Never in a million years. Who could ever have guessed that people want lots and lots of public services, but they don't like paying taxes? I wonder if any politician could ever possibly capitalize on this seeming inconsistency?

Posted by: sglover | Jun 26, 2006 5:25:27 PM

Liberals have been saying this to themselves for a long time, but it's only half true. Sure, some programs have such widespread support that trying to make real cuts in them is a no-go. Social Security, Medicare, and a few smaller programs, probably about 50% of government outlays are like this.

Really, the citizenry is for the most part nonideological. If a program gives good bang for the buck, it will be supported. If it doesn't, it's support will be limited to those directly benefitting from it.

I'd also note that the citizenry gave the GOP and Clinton big bonus points for holding spending increases below the level of economic growth. That's a viable political strategy for cutting spending in the way that really matters: as a percentage of GDP.

Then there's the opposite, new programs. Republicans have an inherent advantage fighting against new programs because they don't yet have a constituency. Conservatives can usually rally taxpayers against such boondoggles.

Posted by: Adam Herman | Jun 26, 2006 7:33:11 PM

I have always thought that what most folks meant my "smaller goverment" was "fewer forms to fill out" not "I get less stuff"

With that definiton I'm in favor of smaller government too.

Posted by: web | Jun 26, 2006 8:15:59 PM

Republicans have an inherent advantage fighting against new programs because they don't yet have a constituency. Conservatives can usually rally taxpayers against such boondoggles.

I'll give you credit for chutzpah for arguing this in the teeth of the Medicare Drug Bill.

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Jun 26, 2006 9:17:31 PM

The problem with slogans isn't that "nobody knows what you mean" its that--if the original insight is correct--the people themselves *don't know what they think" or rather "they think things about themselves that aren't true."

Its not news that most of the voting and non-voting public simply *can not think* coherently about anything and so its no surprise that a person could consistently vote against their own interests (not understanding what their interests are) or vote against their own inclinations because they don't understand the relation between what they are voting for and the real world. A global war on terror and cutting taxes? Why not? In the real world the bills never come due, right? A great public school education for my child but not for the kid down the street? Sure! Liberty for all except for some guy the government tells me is guilty of something *at the same time* that I think tkhe government is conspiring with the UN to round up all the gun owners and put them in concentration camps? Absolutely! why not?

aimai

aimai

Posted by: aimai | Jun 26, 2006 9:57:45 PM

From what (highly limited) experience I have with referendum campaigns, the trouble is often the opposite - when it comes to raising funding for already-existing programs, people are much more supportive in the abstract than in practice. (ie. education, healthcare).

As it seems to me, it's once again an issue of framing - introducing the idea to people in terms of benefits rather than costs. Of course, this is something Republicans already know - Republicans do a lot of ideological grandstanding regarding illegal immigration, abortion, and the like, but when it came to Medicare Plan D, they shied away from talking broadly and ideologically. Of course, it'd be insincere for me to say that was the only reason they didn't grandstand about it, but still.

This is really pretty much the extent to which I am a follower of the whole framing thing. And for that reason, I don't necessarily agree with Chait's assertion. Though I believe that people are generally predisposed to the status quo (and I believe there are a couple studies that agree with me on that), they are also predisposed to a certain set of values they perceive as good for the country. Thus, I think the best bet for liberals, slogan-wise, is really to represent the intended effects of the program rather than the ideological underpinnings of program tenets, in terms which appeal to patriotic impulses - not an easy task, but certainly no more of a stretch than the jingoistic impulses forwarded by the GOP.

Something like "ensuring the American Dream" with regard to programs to strengthen economic mobility - you get the idea.

Posted by: Jon O. | Jun 26, 2006 11:13:45 PM

Can we end the fantasy that "conservatives" stand for lower spending and fiscal responsibility. We've had 5 years of conservative government and an exploding debt to show for it. Conservative politicians don't like "liberal" spending: on things like WIC or school lunch programs or Medicare or Social Security. They love spending on guns, faith based intiatives and corporate welfare. Conservative politicians haven't fought against it and conservative voters have never punished them for profligate spending habits.

Posted by: Mike | Jun 27, 2006 12:21:09 AM

conservatives will whine like the whiney asses they are if you give a needy American 100 bucks. Give a war profiteer one billion bucks and they don't care.

Posted by: merlallen | Jun 27, 2006 7:01:33 AM

I think you guys are making the point nicely: the problem isn't that Americans don't support smaller government(they gave the government very high approval ratings while government shrunk from 1995-2000). It's that idiot Republicans don't realize that smaller government without major cuts in services= electoral gold.

Even Democrats seem to get this now. THey seem to know, even if they aren't saying, that every year they get a few tens of billions of dollars due to economic growth, and that they can have all the new programs they want as long as they leave a little bit left over to reduce the deficit.

It's about cutting growth, not year-over-year cuts. Theoretically, there's no reason spending can't be 1% of GDP and yet still do everything liberals want it to do.

Posted by: Adam Herman | Jun 27, 2006 7:23:27 AM

What did Emma Goldman say? What did Eugene Debs do? What did Susan Anthony think? What was LaFollette's plan? What was Teddy's strategy?

I think we have a great era of progressivism from which to draw models to suit almost anyone's taste, except those in a big hurry. For them, there is Lenin & Trotsky.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jun 27, 2006 8:14:00 AM

geez Ezra, could you at least wait a couple of days before trying to rehabilitate TNR?

Posted by: p.lukasiak | Jun 27, 2006 9:11:56 AM

I don't think people are against corporations being regulated. They are against individuals being hemmed in. And, when people say they want smaller gov't they are thinking of the DMV, not social security.

Posted by: Cathy | Jun 27, 2006 9:23:28 AM

"Its not news that most of the voting and non-voting public simply *can not think* coherently about anything..."

But not you, huh? You have managed to cut through all the crap and see things more clearly than those poor proles ever could. Your keen insights and your towering intellect enable you (and your fellow liberals) to not be confused by the Fog of Rightwing Confusion.
Wow....just...WOW!

Oh if only more of us could be like you...if only we could be smart and sophisticated like you...then the war would end (as if by magic!) and all the soldiers could come home and there would be no more terrorism because, after all, who could hate such wonderful and wise people such as yourselves?


Posted by: zomby woof | Jun 27, 2006 11:25:48 AM

Its not news that most of the voting and non-voting public simply *can not think* coherently about anything and so its no surprise that a person could consistently vote against their own interests (not understanding what their interests are) or vote against their own inclinations because they don't understand the relation between what they are voting for and the real world.

The problem is your comprehension of what you believe the voting public's interest is. You may look at the immediate financial advantage and they may be thinking longer term. That is why you are so perplexed by their voting patterns.

Your attitude is one of elitism where your disdain for the 'little people' is great and you know better what is good for them than they do. It runs counter to the notion of self-government.

Posted by: Fred Jones. | Jun 27, 2006 11:59:56 AM

Actually, fred and zombywoof, I have expressed no opinions about the voters not held in common by the entire republican machine. Try reading Abramoff et al's emails for how they think about the voters who sent them money--up to and including the christian fundamentalist groups. A disdain for the thinking capacity of american citizens isn't a sign of liberal elitism, its simply a sign of an educated american who studies how people think and act for a living. It is widely shared by *anyone who has ever taught* at the university level simply because we are exposed on a professional level to the theoretically best educated young people in the country. If they can't think coherently about literature, the arts, the sciences what are the odds that the average voter can? I'm sorry if the facts appear to you to be biased against "the common man" who you incorrectly assume to be a right wing voter. My observations apply equally well to all americans. And, of course, I'm not "perplexed" by voting patterns in this country and the issue isn't somehow economics vs. values (as fred implies). I said that people were not as realistic about things like tax issues at the federal level (taxes in time of war) as they are,necessarily, about how they spend money as a household. To me that signals a huge failure of thought on the part of people who essentially vote for endless war without being prepared to pay the actual price (and, in fact, that has turned out to be the case. Americans are *not* willing to pay the price, either financial or moral, but they appear to remain surprised that endless war doesn't come cheap).

As to whether this is "elitism" and shows a "disdain for th elittle people." hardly. My disdain is for everyone who can't think clearly about important political issues--and for the liars in our actual elite classes (running this country) who pretend that they can't think clearly to fool self styled "little people" like yourselves. Bush is no more a non-elite member of the "people" than any other elected and appointed leader in this country. But you accept his faux populism as something real. I don't.

And of course, a realistic conviction that most people in this country have been betrayed by lousy public education and an incredibly manipulative republican political machine doesn't make me anti self government, it just makes me a keen observer of the human scene. And yes, I'm an educated person and proud of it. One thing I've learned in the last few years of watching the endless parade of mediocrities that the Bush government has put in place--all men may be created equal, and in this great country they should all have equal rights (an elitist view held by all liberals but damn few conservatives) but a huge number of bush voters have thrown away their birthright to education, common sense, and even common decency. We may all theoretically start in the same place but by god you can see how debased the far right has become in its anti science, anti education, anti humanist, anti civil liberty jihad since Bush empowered them.

It isn't I who am opposed to self government and democracy, its people like you who have supported, and continue to support, the most dangerously anti democratic Aamerican government since we kicked out King George III.
aimai

Posted by: aimai | Jun 27, 2006 12:57:54 PM

Actually, fred and zombywoof, I have expressed no opinions about the voters not held in common by the entire republican machine.

You know, Fred's worldview makes perfect sense if you assume that truth is a function of what the majority of the people believe. If the majority is always right, then of course it's elitist to hold any beliefs that disagree with the majority. The most popular choice is, empirically, the best.

Also, the world was flat until the day Columbus discovered America.

Posted by: Cyrus | Jun 27, 2006 2:20:53 PM

Right is a function of time. Perhaps in the future we might afford animals more rights. Looking back, we could easily say you were wrong for eating beef, or wearing leather, etc. What an asshole!

So, since 'right' is an elusive concept of future assessment, here's the question: How do you settle these issues if not by democracy?

Or do we just trust you because you whine a lot?

Posted by: Fred Jones. | Jun 27, 2006 3:09:37 PM

Right is a function of time. Perhaps in the future we might afford animals more rights. Looking back, we could easily say you were wrong for eating beef, or wearing leather, etc. What an asshole!

So, since 'right' is an elusive concept of future assessment, here's the question: How do you settle these issues if not by democracy?

Or do we just trust you because you whine a lot?

A marvelously eloquent speech, at least by your standards, but I fail to understand how it addresses whether aimai's beliefs about voters are elitist, or for that matter, true.

Do you agree with her assessment, but you think she's elitist for being honest enough to say it? Or do you disagree with her for reasons you didn't bother to explain? I happen to think she is right. To put it in less controversial terms than the examples she gave, it's not new or revolutionary to argue that people vote at least partly based on the personal appeal of the candidate rather than their positions. Similarly, I have to admit I have sometimes voted for a candidate just based on their party without knowing anything about their beliefs, opinions, or history. Can you honestly say you have never done the same? Do you think doing so is unique to me, or The Left (TM)? Do you see the potential for the same way of thinking in such decisions as in the examples she gave? If your answer to the second question is "no" and/or your answer to the third is "yes", then I don't see what you're disagreeing with aimai about.

And to answer your question, "How do you settle these issues if not by democracy?" Democracy determines what we should do, within certain limits. It does not determine what we should believe or what the truth is or what is right and wrong. I don't think ethical principles change as quickly as laws that correspond to them, if at all, but if you think wearing leather or eating meat is morally acceptable because people vote to allow it, I guess you disagree.

Posted by: Cyrus | Jun 27, 2006 4:08:21 PM

Again I ask the question:

How do you settle these issues if not by democracy?

Posted by: Fred Jones. | Jun 27, 2006 4:39:08 PM

Democracy determines what we should do...

And there it is from this commenter. What we believe, etc. is opinion. You have yours, I have mine, and everyone else has their. It's what we DO that is important, and as you have pointed out, democracy is the best way to decide.

Thank you.

Posted by: Fred Jones. | Jun 27, 2006 4:43:47 PM

Fred,
like your boss bush you are arguing against a straw man ("some say people in the middle east dont love liberty" etc...etc...) No one on this thread has argued against democracy, or against the popular vote, or even against the voters. Its literally never even been put into question on this thread. Your question "how do you setle these issues if not by democracy" is so out of touch with the thread as a whole that it reads as though it was, indeed, generated by a fredbot.

The question isn't "how do we settle knotty questions" which you, presumably, would answer "by majority rule" and the rest of us, steeped in the actual american tradition, would argue "by a complex set of democratic and republican measures, laws, the constitution, the bill of rights, and the separation of powers that protect the minority from rampant majority rule."

So even within the rubric of "democracy" we have more than "opinion" vs "opinion" but rather historically informed understandings of an actual democratic system (the liberal understanding) vs. utter bullshit (yours).

But to return to the *actual* question here: The question is how good are the voters at a) figuring out what is going on, b) figuring out what they think they want out of the political situaiton, c) acting on that information politically (that is, choosing the candidate who has the best chance/intention of actually pursuing policies the voters think they want. Again, its not a question of elitism vs democracy its simply a question of what kind of working democracy can we have when ignorance is bliss.

aimai

Posted by: aimai | Jun 27, 2006 6:46:09 PM

The question is how good are the voters at a) figuring out what is going on, b) figuring out what they think they want out of the political situaiton, c) acting on that information politically (that is, choosing the candidate who has the best chance/intention of actually pursuing policies the voters think they want.

And my point was who cares? What does it matter how stupid you believe the unwashed masses to be? Unless you have a better system than a voting public, they will make the decisions regardless of your disdain for them. You truly are a snooty person with little regard for the "little people".

Posted by: Fred Jones | Jun 28, 2006 9:03:49 AM

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