Down with the People

Article excerpt

Byline: Jacob Weisberg

Who's to blame for the political mess? You.

In trying to explain our political paralysis, analysts cite President Obama's tactical missteps, the obstinacy of congressional Republicans, rising partisanship in Washington, and the Senate filibuster, which has devolved into a super-majority threshold for important legislation. These are large factors to be sure, but that list neglects what may be the biggest culprit of all: the childishness, ignorance, and growing incoherence of the public at large.

Anybody who says you can't have it both ways hasn't been spending much time reading opinion polls lately. One year ago, 59 percent of the American public liked the economic 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 polls reflect something more troubling: a country that simultaneously demands and rejects action on unemployment, deficits, health care, and other problems.

At the root of this contradiction is our national-characterological ambivalence about government. We want Washington and the states to fix our problems. At the same time, we want government to shrink, spend less, and reduce our taxes. We dislike government in the abstract: 67 percent of people favor balancing the budget even when the country is in a recession or a war, according to CNN. But we love government in the particular: even larger majorities oppose the kind of spending cuts that would reduce projected deficits, let alone eliminate them. Nearly half the public wants to cancel Obama's stimulus spending, and a strong majority doesn't want another round of it. But 80-plus percent of people want to extend unemployment benefits and put more money into building roads. Another term for that is stimulus spending.

Some say that the public is in an angry, populist, tea-partying mood. But a lot more people are watching American Idol than Glenn Beck, and our collective illogic is mostly passive rather than militant. The better explanation is that the public lives in Candyland, where government can tackle the big problems and get out of the way at the same time. …