Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Reminding Voters What Works

There has been a lot of pontificating about why (mostly white) Americans these days are so angry and distrustful of government. The latest to wade into those waters was Alec MacGillis with his much-discussed article titled: Who Turned My Blue State Red?

It is important to make the distinction between being distrustful of politics and being distrustful of government programs. All of us are angry at the former, sometimes for different reasons. But it is the Republicans who decided that their best play against a Democratic president was to completely abandon their responsibility to govern. I would simply remind you that when touting the idea of a "permanent Republican majority" back in 2003, Grover Norquist was asked what that meant for when a Democrat won the White House. His response was, "We will make it so that a Democrat cannot govern as a Democrat.” We've seen that plan in action now for 7 years. And yes, it is infuriating.

But the distrust and anger Americans feel about government programs is a bit more difficult to understand. The roots of it are complex. That is why, when reviewing Stanley Greenberg's book for the print edition of the Washington Monthly, I noted that " it would be important to know whether white working-class voters think that no government programs work, or whether their concerns are limited to certain areas."

A report just published by the Pew Research Center titled, Beyond Distrust: How Americans View Their Government, helps us unpack a lot of that. Here is the headline graphic:

Notice that in all areas except space exploration, a majority of the American public supports the government playing a major role. And when asked about whether or not the government is doing a good job in each of those areas (rather than the more general question about overall trust in government), the ratings are relatively high. Of course there are some differences on how Democrats and Republicans rate government performance in these areas. Here's what Pew found.

The optimist in me wants to make sure that we all notice how similarly Democrats and Republicans view the government's performance in areas like responding to natural disasters (an amazing finding that demonstrates how far the Obama administration has come since Bush's handling of Katrina), setting workplace standards, ensuring safe food and medicine, protecting the environment, maintaining infrastructure and ensuring access to quality education. The partisan divide starts to show up around keeping the country safe from terrorism, ensuring access to health care, strengthening the economy and managing the immigration system. It should surprise none of us that those four issues are the ones that are front and center in our electoral processes right now.

But given that the Democrats are the party committed to good government, perhaps it would be a good strategy for candidates to remind voters that they generally approve of the job the government is doing on things like responding to natural disasters, setting workplace standards and ensuring safe food and medicine. When Republicans talk about cutting budgets and getting rid of regulations, those are exactly the kinds of government functions that would be damaged.

One of my great frustrations with liberals is that they tend to not be very good at touting their successes. I am reminded of what Marilynne Robinson said recently during her conversation with President Obama.
Most of the things we do have no defenders because people tend to feel the worst thing you can say is the truest thing you can say.
Changing that doesn't mean ignoring the challenges we face. It just means that every now and then it might be a good idea to remind voters of what's working.


  1. I am reminded of the tendency for voters to rank Congress as really low but have much better feelings about their own representatives.

    Humans just seem genetically wired to not be very good at judging the value of something in the aggregate.

  2. I love your analysis of this, Nancy. As always, thanks for sharing your smart insights.

    About this part of your analysis:

    "The partisan divide starts to show up around keeping the country safe from terrorism, ensuring access to health care, strengthening the economy and managing the immigration system."

    I can't help but note how Republican voters' opinions about those things seem to be greatly animated by racial fears and resentments. In other words, if the racial component were not present to affect their assessments of those policy areas, I wonder -- would there be much of a partisan "divide" remaining?


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