Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Wake Me When It's Over

After a bit of a lull, RWA1 has been linking again. Much of it of course was about the deaths of Christopher Hitchens and Vaclav Havel (nothing about the death of Kim Jong-Il, though -- yet), but the fun part was this article at The New Republic, "Why Obama's New Populism May Sink His Campaign," by William Galston, a hack from the Brookings Institution. "Vain hope that this will be heeded," wrote RWA1, a single tear poignantly staining his cheek. (It did occur to me that the "vain hope" referred to was Galston's, but that's not RWA1's style.)

This, class, is a paradigm example of the phenomenon known as concern trolling, where a partisan pretends to be concerned that his or her opponent may be shooting himself in the foot. Oh noes! cries the loyal Republican: Obama might lose in 2012 if he pursues this self-defeating strategy! Usually I associate this tactic with the Right -- homophobes lecturing us that flamboyant Pride Parades will hurt our cause, for example -- but lately I've been seeing it on the Near Right, with many Democrats sincerely concerned that none of the current crop of Republican Presidential aspirants has a chance against the God-King, shouldn't they find someone electable?

Galston's argument is built on some recent Gallup polls which allegedly show, first, "that the number of Americans who see American society as divided into haves and have-nots has decreased significantly since the 2008 election"; second, "substantial majorities of Americans saw expanding the economy and increasing equality of opportunity as extremely or very important. Not so for reducing income and wealth gaps"; third, as "Obama nears the end of his third year in office, the people are more likely to fear government, and less likely to fear business, than they were at the beginning of his administration." The poll question was presumably put in terms of "big government," not just "government," but hey, what's the difference?

Since this was a magazine piece posted to the web, rather than a blog post, it contains no links to those polls, and it took me a while to find them for this post. And I noticed something interesting, which is why it's always a good idea to check claims at the source: Galston paraphrased the second question as "Respondents were asked to categorize three economic objectives as extremely important, very important, somewhat important, or not important." But the actual question was "how important is it that the federal government in Washington enacts policies that attempt to do each of the following" (italics added) -- that is, the respondents want the big government, which most Americans consider a greater threat than big labor or big business, to enact those policies.

That's a common problem with polling, of course: how the question is put will affect, and may even determine, the answers received. I'm not at all surprised that a majority of Americans would say they fear big government, and charitably understood it's not an unreasonable fear. Put in those terms, I and many another leftist would share that fear: of indefinite detention, surveillance of personal communication, and vast military spending in the service of empire. But most Americans also want big government and the services it provides: the social programs, like Social Security and Medicare and disaster relief, that the Right (including both my Right-Wing Acquaintances) hates and want to eliminate for the good of the American people, are very popular. That's why the same politicians who denounce the Nanny State are first in line to demand big government aid when disaster strikes their states. That's why you hear laments from both sides of the Congressional aisle about Social Security being a political "third rail" -- because politicians who touch it with hostile intent will get badly burned, not by lobbyists or special-interest groups, but by the public.

That's why, when polls ask more specific and concrete questions, they get results that appear to be at odds with Gallup's. A recent Pew poll, released at the same time, found (via):
Roughly three-quarters of the public (77%) say that they think there is too much power in the hands of a few rich people and large corporations in the United States. In a 1941 Gallup poll, six-in-ten (60%) Americans expressed this view. About nine-in-ten (91%) Democrats and eight-in-ten (80%) of independents assert that power is too concentrated among the rich and large corporations, but this view is shared by a much narrower majority (53%) of Republicans.
Reflecting a parallel sentiment, 61% of Americans now say the economic system in this country unfairly favors the wealthy and just 36% say the system is generally fair to most Americans. About three-quarters (76%) of Democrats and 61% of independents say the economic system is tilted in favor of the wealthy; a majority (58%) of Republicans say that the system is generally fair to most Americans.
The public also views Wall Street negatively, little changed from opinions in March. Currently, just 36% say Wall Street helps the American economy more than it hurts — 51% say it hurts more than helps. Majorities of both Democrats (60%) and independents (54%) say Wall Street hurts more than helps, while nearly half of Republicans say Wall Street helps the economy (49%)...
While there may be some cognitive dissonance here, I don't think it's serious. Most Americans, according to Gallup, want big government to enact policies to expand the economy and increase equality of opportunity. I admit I don't see how people can simultaneously reject the idea that America is divided into haves and have-nots and believe that there's too much power in the hands of a few rich people, but I also have to admit they are two different questions, and I think Pew's version is less abstract. I'm wary of big government, because I know how easily it can get out of the control of the people it was supposedly founded to serve. (And did you notice? There's not a word here about reducing the deficit, which obsesses the government and media elites, but doesn't concern most citizens that much.)

Anyway, these polls indicate that Obama won't be hurting his chances of re-election by talking a "populist" game; that's why he's doing it, after all. (Whether he'll do more than talk is another question.) Especially since it's well-known by now that Democratic politicians, including Obama, do best with their base when they sound "populist"; they only get into trouble when they demonstrate that it was just talk. So do Republicans, for that matter, who also pretend to be populists, but in terms that appeal to a different base. Don't all the Republican candidates claim that they are the ones who really care about the good of the people? The original Tea Party movement talked populism too, speaking for a Republican minority that hadn't voted for the Kenyan Usurper and never would, but still thought he should do what they wanted. But it's a safe bet that Obama is making sure that his real base, the corporate donors, know that the speechmaking is for the proles, and isn't meant to be taken seriously.

What surprises me, or would surprise me if I weren't used to it by now, is that RWA1 misses all this. Why doesn't he make fun of Obama for pretending to care about ordinary people, or if he must pretend that Obama isn't pretending, shouldn't he hope piously that Obama will be defeated next year so that he can't carry out his socialist, anti-business, anti-America agenda? It could be partly because of RWA1's elitism; he considers most of his fellow citizens to be rabble, yahoos who are flushing a great culture down the toilet, putting his NPR opera programs at risk. But if this country is in trouble -- and I certainly agree that it is, but in different ways and for different reasons -- isn't it important to understand what is going on? Especially if you consider yourself to be intellectually superior to the dirty canaille? The TNR writer Galston, by the way, doesn't seem to be concern trolling: he seems to want Obama's re-election. RWA1, like so much of the educated (or least schooled) Right, doesn't seem to know what he wants.

Some of it must be party loyalty. The rational thing for the Republican party to do would be to embrace Obama, nominate him their 2012 candidate, and end the game of pretending that there is a wide gulf between the parties; but more important than rationality is the brand name, which as with other commercial brands, necessitates inventing nonexistent differences. (The GOP! Gets your whites whiter! Produces a longer lasting shine without yellowing! Gives you fast fast fast relief from tension headaches!) Of course the Democrats wouldn't accept that either: they've spent the past three years cheering Obama as he embraced and extended the worst Bush-Cheney policies. Everything they attacked Bush for doing is now the proof of Obama's greatness. Now they've got their own websites defending him against his critics -- of the left; we may be crazy and numerically insignificant but we are still a threat -- in terms borrowed directly from the hydrophobic Republican fringe.

One Gallup poll result I can go with, though: 70 percent of Americans can't wait for the coming elections to be over.