What Voters Really Want
Published on Wednesday, February 20, 2002 in the Boston Globe
What Voters Really Want
by Robert Kuttner
WHAT DO VOTERS really want from government? Despite years of government-bashing, several recent polls suggest that voters still count heavily on government for social and economic security. And, while the Bush administration wins broad support for its antiterrorism program, liberal economic themes on other issues resonate with voters.

Pollster Celinda Lake, in a new series of polls sponsored by the Ms Foundation for Women, found that 76 percent of voters thought government should do more to help working families, 84 percent want a higher minimum wage, 87 percent want government help for health insurance to laid off workers, 82 percent want extended unemployment benefits.

At a time when the Bush administration is reprogramming welfare funds to promote marriage as the solution to poverty, less than 3 percent think the welfare system's job is to encourage marriage. More than 80 percent believe government should increase benefits for women who have left welfare and are working, including health insurance. Eighty-three percent want government to create jobs for people who cannot find work. Other polls continue to show that large majorities support universal health insurance.

Meanwhile, Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, author of ''Bowling Alone,'' finds a dramatic swing in public opinion since Sept. 11 both in the trust people have in public institutions and the trust we have in each other. This new trust extends well beyond support for police, fire, and military branches of government, Putnam reports. Recent polls find that two-thirds express basic trust in the federal governnent to do the right thing most of the time, the highest level of public support since the 1960s.

The administration, of course, is using this support for government to increase military and security spending, not to deliver other social goods voters want, such as expanded health insurance, job training, or child care. Nor are the opposition Democrats offering more than token initiatives in these directions. The conventional assumption is that big and costly social outlays are off the table for an indefinite future, and that a politician who supported them would be committing political suicide.

These poll findings raise a broader question. If voters really want such things as universal health insurance and expanded social outlays, why are these not being offered by the political system?

The reason for the disconnect between government and the voting public is a hoary question among political scientists, and students of politics generally divide into two camps. One camp contends that voters have given up on government because government has abandoned voters. In this account, public opinion is generally middle-of-the-road, while party and ideologically driven interest-group activists have migrated to the extremes.

The trouble with this view is that it misreads recent political history. It's certainly true that Republicans and conservatives have become more ideologically cohesive. But Democrats and liberals have become more centrist and more divided. Much of recent history is a case of New Democrats trying to ingratiate themselves with business and to moderate their traditional support for social outlay in favor of fiscal discipline.

Much of Newt Gingrich's 1994 ''Contract with America'' was enacted into law despite public opinion, not because voters were demanding it. It was a case of an ideologically determined minority armed with plenty of money ramming through a program to benefit elites.

The other view, which I find much more plausible, holds that powerful economic forces in this country have mobilized to make sure that neither party seriously offers voters what they say they want. The immense difficulty Congress has had in enacting even a tepid form of campaign finance reform to limit big money in politics underscores this reality.

Indeed, judging by public opinion polls, if Congress really delivered what voters say they want, Congress would enact universal health insurance. Government would spend more money to make sure that work paid a living wage. The federal government would make sure teachers were paid adequately and that classroom spending were more equal.

Funding for the environment and clean energy would go up. The administration would give more support to international institutions. The tax system would be simpler and more progressive.

Instead, the actual political agenda is well to the right of public opinion. You need look no further than the Enron scandal to see why.

Political agendas are set by those who invest in politics, and lately money has simply crowded out ordinary voters. Voters will continue to be alienated from politics until some political leader or movement defies the conventional wisdom and offers real alternatives.

Robert Kuttner's is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe.

© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company