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Why Are Americans So Confused?

When I was back there in junior high school, there was a civics teacher who put forth the proposition that democracy depends on one simple principle: People are rational. Give them free access to information, and they’ll think things through logically to figure out what policies are best not just for themselves but for the whole nation.

The latest poll from the Washington Post - Kaiser Family Foundation gives some support to that proposition. 67% of this sampling of 3,130 Americans understand that “there are many goods and services which would not be available to ordinary people without government intervention.” Only 29% disagree.

As a group they are more worried about jobs and health costs than the federal deficit. 45% think Democratic economic policies help them; only 37% say that about the GOP.

To be fair, the group sampled was a bit more liberal than in most other polls. 34% identify as Democrats and only 25% as Republicans; 29% declared themselves liberal on most political matters, which is more than you see in most polls. They favor Obama over Romney by a solid margin, 50% to 43%.

On a number of questions, though, a majority of this seemingly left-tilting group sound like they are reading from Romney’s script. 55% want “smaller government with fewer services”; only 40% want more government services. 53% think budget cuts to reduce the federal deficit would help the economy. But not in the Pentagon. Only 45% would reduce military spending, while 51% oppose that.

Yet 63 % agree with the Democrats that additional spending on roads, bridges, and other public works projects would help the economy; only 13% think it would hurt. No support for smaller government or budget cuts there.

And 65% support Obama’s plan to raise taxes on households with incomes of 250 thousand dollars per year or higher. Only 33% oppose it. But 51% say cutting personal income taxes would help the economy, and 53% support cutting taxes on businesses.

These people seem rather confused. So maybe it’s not surprising that when asked whether the economy would benefit more from increased spending or avoiding federal deficit, they deadlock at  48% - 48%.  

They’ve got the same kind of confusion when it comes to broader principles. More think government regulation is helpful than think it’s harmful, by 49% to 44%. 52% say “the federal government should do everything possible to improve the standard of living”; only 44% say that is “not the government’s responsibility, each person should take care of themselves.” What happened to the majority who want smaller government with fewer services? 

They show up again in the 60% who agree with the Romney-Ryan view that “government controls too much of our daily lives” and in the 65% who say, “Most people who don’t get ahead should not blame the system, they have only themselves to blame”; only 33% disagree. A whopping 75% say, “People should take responsibility for their own lives and economic well-being and not expect other people to help”; only 23% disagree. (Remember the 67% who said many goods and services would not be available to ordinary people without government intervention?)

However another whopping 70% endorse the view that “If people were treated more equally in this country we would have many fewer problems”; only 28% disagree. If people are not treated equally, how can they be blamed for their own troubles? In the very same poll, though, only 52% will agree that “one of the big problems in this country is that we don’t give everyone an equal chance,” while fully 46% disagree.

With such confusion on basic principles, no wonder this group contradicts itself so much on economic policies. But if your head is spinning now, wait. There’s just a bit more.

Should we “be more tolerant of people who choose to live according to their own moral standards even if we think they are wrong”? A huge majority say yes, we should be more tolerant, 75% to 23%.  But are “Americans are too tolerant and accepting of behaviors that in the past were considered immoral or wrong”? You guessed it. A large majority (61%) say that we are too tolerant; only 36% disagree.


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Well, that’s how democracy works. Not by rigorous logical thinking, as we were taught in civics class. But not by cynical manipulation of the masses, either. There’s enough support for Democratic and even liberal views here to show that these are not passive victims of FoxNews propaganda.

Should we conclude that people are hopelessly confused and leave it at that? No. I think there’s a way to make sense out of all this contradiction, if we look at one more question from this poll:  “Do you think that people and groups that hold values similar to yours are gaining influence in American life in general these days, or do you think that they are losing influence”? 59% reply that they and their people are losing influence. Only 34% see themselves gaining. 

To put it just a bit too bluntly, an awful lot of Americans feel like losers. They know that they are hard-working citizens who play by the rules. But they aren’t getting ahead and they don’t feel they’re getting a fair shake. It seems like the little guy just doesn’t stand a chance. That’s their story.

So they are ready to agree with the story Obama tells on the campaign trail: Inequality is a big problem. Ordinary folks deserve more help from the government to equalize things and help out the little guy. That means more government spending. The rich should pay a bigger share of the costs of to offset that. And a bit more tolerance all around will make us a better society. 

But Obama can’t solve their biggest problem: How to explain why they are losing out. Someone must be to blame. Enter Romney and Ryan. They, like Ronald Reagan and lots of other Republicans, know who is to blame: the government. It’s a simplistic, wrong-headed answer. But if this poll is anywhere near accurate (and plenty of others polls get similar results), a majority of Americans find the R-crowd’s story pretty appealing.

They know that they are capable, responsible people who can make it on their own if given half a chance. So they figure everyone else can take care of themselves too. The problem must be the huge, impersonal government controlling our lives. Get it off the backs of ordinary people -- let everyone stand on their own two feet -- and those of us who are decent folks, who still live by the tried-and-true moral values of the past, will do fine. That’s how the Romney-Ryan story goes.

All presidential candidates dish up mythic narratives, wrapping their selective version of the facts in stories that give them meaning and emotional punch. But this poll suggests that in 2012, unlike some election years, the myths the two sides are telling have roughly equal appeal. The public as a whole just can’t make up its mind which story to take as its guide. That’s why the candidates are virtually tied in the polls, which have barely moved in months. 

There’s a lesson here for progressives who wonder why their movement has so much trouble gaining political traction with the masses. Yes, the masses are manipulated, but not as much as many progressives think. The problem progressives ignore is that they still believe what they learned in civics class: Give the people the true facts and their minds will lead them to logical conclusions. What the civics teacher left out is the powerful, perhaps ineradicable, human tendency to look for meaning by thinking in (or by means of) mythic narratives.

This poll suggests that a majority of Americans are listening with a somewhat open mind to the traditional populist narrative: It’s the rich bosses against the little guy, and it’s government’s job to balance the scales.

Obama and his campaign strategists are betting that a “soft” version of this story, hedged with concessions to the Romney-Ryan tale of rugged individualism, will win at least 271 electoral votes. So they are giving the basic progressive story line a public hearing and respectability that it hasn’t had since the days of Lyndon B. Johnson, the last of the New Dealers.

That gives progressives something to build on, if they will forget what they learned in civics class and accept the fact that in politics, it’s myth against myth. A successful myth has to have deep roots in the past. The old populist story meets that test. From the 1890s to the 1930s, and then again in the 1960s, it had huge support in the political mainstream. There’s no reason it can’t be revived.

But other deep roots have to be included too, if a progressive myth is going to have political success: the American tradition of individual responsibility and self-help, along with some kind of respect for familiar, reassuring moral values and a strong dash of patriotism.

It’s a tough task to put all that together in an appealing story. But with some imaginative effort it certainly can be done. If you doubt that go back and read the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  The populist myth was only part of King’s much broader message. But he can serve as an instructive and inspiring example because he was such a shrewd politician. He was able to win over much of the nation for radical change, despite massive opposition, in part because he had factual and moral truth on his side, but in part because he expressed that truth in such an emotionally powerful mythic narrative. We would do well to follow his example. 

Ira Chernus

Ira Chernus

Ira Chernus is Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of"American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea."

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