Sunday, July 31, 2011

Why Voters Tune Out Democrats

Fascinating essay by pollster Stanley Greenberg about why voters who prefer Democratic policies nevertheless vote for Republicans:

During the last half-century or so, when a Democratic president has led the country, people have tended to experience lower unemployment, less inequality and rising income compared with periods of Republican governance. There is a reason, however, that many voters in the developed world are turning away from Democrats, Socialists, liberals and progressives. . . .

In analyzing these polls in the United States, I see clearly that voters feel ever more estranged from government — and that they associate Democrats with government. If Democrats are going to be encumbered by that link, they need to change voters’ feelings about government. They can recite their good plans as a mantra and raise their voices as if they had not been heard, but voters will not listen to them if government is disreputable.

Oddly, many voters prefer the policies of Democrats to the policies of Republicans. They just don’t trust the Democrats to carry out those promises.

When we conducted our election-night national survey after last year’s Republican sweep, voters strongly chose new investment over a new national austerity. They thought Democrats were more likely to champion the middle class. And as has become clear in the months since, the public does not share conservatives’ views on rejecting tax cuts and cutting retirement programs. Numerous recent polls have shown that the public sides with the president and Democrats on raising taxes to get to a balanced budget.

But in smaller, more probing focus groups, voters show they are fairly cynical about Democratic politicians’ stands. They tune out the politicians’ fine speeches and plans and express sentiments like these: “It’s just words.” “There’s just such a control of government by the wealthy that whatever happens, it’s not working for all the people; it’s working for a few of the people.” “We don’t have a representative government anymore.”

This distrust of government and politicians is unfolding as a full-blown crisis of legitimacy sidelines Democrats and liberalism. Just a quarter of the country is optimistic about our system of government. . . .

In earlier periods, confidence in the economy and rising personal incomes put limits on voter discontent. Today, a dispiriting economy combined with a well-developed critique of government leaves government not just distrusted but illegitimate.

Government operates by the wrong values and rules, for the wrong people and purposes, the Americans I’ve surveyed believe. Government rushes to help the irresponsible and does little for the responsible. Wall Street lobbyists govern, not Main Street voters. Vexingly, this promotes both national and middle-class decline yet cannot be moved by conventional democratic politics. Lost jobs, soaring spending and crippling debt make America ever weaker, unable to meet its basic obligations to educate and protect its citizens. Yet politicians take care of themselves and party interests, while government grows remote and unresponsive, leaving people feeling powerless.

Propaganda works, and Republicans are winning the propaganda war. Democrats have mostly stopped demonizing big business and capitalism, but Republicans constantly demonize government. When things are bad, people wondering who to blame listen and hear only one culprit under attack: the government. Polls show that millions of people on Medicare say they have never benefited from a government program.

This is why liberals wanted Obama to take some big public stands and make loud speeches denouncing Republicans and their ties to business. Personally I hate that sort of thing, but the evidence is that it works.

I will say that one reason we are having this series of budget crises is that Democrats in Congress really did put "party interests" above national interests before the 2008 election, when they refused to pass a budget because they thought a budget with such a huge deficit would be used against them in the election. As it turned out, almost all the vulnerable Democrats lost anyway, so they might as well have made funding the government their swan song.

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