Sunday, February 7, 2010

A Nation of Hypocrites: Why Do Americans Expect More For Less?

Jacob Weisberg's latest essay in Slate offers a very provocative explanation for the bitter standoff in national politics: American voters embrace highly contradictory positions. Although other commentators have made similar observations regarding public opinion in the past, Weisberg's analysis seems quite relevant to contemporary politics. Here is a sample:
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.
Weisberg contends that Americans hate government in the "abstract" but love it in the "particular." They claim to want less government spending and a reduction in taxes and the deficit, but they want more services from the government, which means more spending and taxes and, potentially, greater deficits.

While Weisberg is certainly liberal, he tries to view this problem free of partisanship. Both sides, Weisberg argues, contribute to American hypocrisy: "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."

My Take: Weisberg's analysis has a lot of truth to it. In the recent past, Americans supported two costly wars with simultaneous tax cuts. Now, they are foaming at the mouth over deficits. Many of these same anti-deficit folks want the government "out of Medicare," which is about as contradictory a statement as possible. The country went into a deep panic when banks were failing, but now people across the political spectrum loathe the fact that two administrations have spent money to stem the crisis and stabilize financial markets. Finally, as Weisberg observes, a majority of Americans want the government to support people who are unemployed, but they apparently do not want to spend any money to accomplish this goal.

What causes people to embrace such inconsistent positions? I would attribute this situation in part to the nation's collectively short attention span, impatience, and the American Idolization of the national culture which causes people to crave shiny results, rather than dealing with the ugly and difficult reality. American pop culture glamorizes some of the most unglamorous work -- crime scene investigation, surgeries, autopsies, policing, and even war. Apparently, Americans can't handle the truth. In turn, the inability to approach the world honestly is probably a significant factor behind hypocrisy and inconsistent behavior.

Update: Kathy Kattenburg at the Moderate Voice has a similar take: Politicians Are All the Same. They Give Us Exactly What We Ask For. Matt Yglesias does not.

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