I’m one of the many who think mainstream political analysis in America is overly obsessed with armchair psychoanalysis of power-holders. The often far more important roles that institutions and externalities, chiefly the economy, play are frequently woefully under-emphasized. We didn’t “win” the Cold War because American leaders stuck out their chests and pounded on tables; FDR didn’t win four elections because his speeches were structured like fairy tales; Adlai Stevenson didn’t lose back-to-back elections to Eisenhower because he liked to read too much, etc.
Having said that, I do think there’s utility in attempting to place yourself in the heads of voters—however you’re defining the term—in order to understand why it is that politics in America works the way it does. This can often get messy and reveal more about you than voters (see: the pundit class’s obsession with Daddy) but sometimes it’s elucidating. A fundamental, if unstated, assumption behind representative democracy is, after all, that people can share the same or very similar world views and communicate with one another—even make decisions for one another—without asking the opinion of each person, one-by-one.
So here are some examples, good and bad.
Let’s start with the bad, because I’m just that kind of guy. The Washington Post‘s Chris Cillizza has been very enthusiastic over the past few days about a new article from his colleague, Scott Wilson. In brief, the Wilson piece argues that President Obama is just not an especially outgoing, friendly, personable, or emotionally available guy, and that this explains to a significant degree his current political difficulties and continued strained relations with Congressional Democrats. In praise of the piece, Cizzilla writes this morning:
[Obama's] go-it-alone approach to politics paid huge dividends during the 2008 campaign as it allowed him to paint himself as the consummate outsider in an election where people were craving just that.
But, Obama’s loner tendencies have served him far less well as president and now, as he turns to his bid for a second term, threaten to leave him isolated with little political cover from his own side.
Obama is doing what he can to remedy that problem with a base-intensive strategy of late designed to remind Democratic voters — and elected officials — why they like him.
The question for Obama is whether the problem is fixable. The level of distrust is significant and long-held. And the timing couldn’t be worse.
I read about half of the Wilson piece, and immediately thought it was total bunk—and the kind of bunk that the DC press produced, almost like clockwork, whenever a President is experiencing especially hard times. It’s not so surprising, I guess, that reporters and political players in Washington immediately interpret the President’s flagging popularity in terms of his personality; they do so often reveal their conception of themselves (and Washington in general) as nothing so much as a big, army-having, war-making, bomb-deploying high school. But it’s still a brand of analysis that leaves something to be desired.
If Brad was the coolest dude in the 12th grade as of a few months ago, but now everyone kind of hates him—then, yeah, it would make sense to bring up all the times he told Mary-Sue he was too busy to hang out with her when he was so totally not; and it would make sense to point to that time during Christmas break when he told back-up QB Jason that he’d never be half the player he is. But as an explanation for why the President’s popularity is sagging and why he isn’t finding Congressional democrats, with an election of their own to look forward to in little more than a year, desperate to hitch their wagon to his earth-bound name?
I get it; gossip is more fun to write than another repetition of the same-old story of partisan gridlock and a bad economy. People don’t tend to talk about public policy around the water-cooler. But not only is politics not bean-bag—it’s not “The Real World: DC,” either.
That’s the bad. Now let’s turn to the good.
Responding to an unfortunately deterministic and rather water-carrying article from (again) The Washington Post, this time Ezra Klein, in which the horrible state of the economy, post-financial crash, is portrayed as nigh-on inevitable—while the Obama Administration is mostly absolved of guilt because, after all, they’re only human—Steve Waldman chides the White House for still living too much in the DC bubble. They remain seemingly incapable not only of imagining the channels of power as malleable, but also conceiving of public policy’s impact upon voters on an emotional, symbolic—not technocratic—level:
[Klein's] account is far too sympathetic. The Obama administration’s response to the crisis was visibly poor in real time. Klein shrugs off the error as though it were inevitable, predestined. It was not. The administration screwed up, and they screwed up in a deeply toxic way. They defined “politically possible” to mean acceptable to powerful incumbents, and then restricted their policy advocacy to the realm of that possible. […]
[H]uman affairs are not about dollars and cents. Santelli’s rant and the tea party it kind-of inspired were not borne of a financial calculation — “Oh my God! My tax bill is going to be $600 higher if we refinance underwater mortgages!” Santelli’s rant, quite legitimately, reflected a fairness concern. The core political issue has never been the quantity of debt the government would incur to mitigate the crisis. It was and remains the fairness of the transfers all that debt would finance. A fact of human affairs that proved unfortunately consequential during the crisis is that people perceive injustice more powerfully on a personal scale than at an institutional level. Bailing out the dude next door who cashed out home equity to build a Jacuzzi is a crime. Bailing out the “financial system” is just a statistic.
I think Waldman’s correct, though it should be appreciated that big numbers scare people, and that means that even the most ethically iron-clad bail-out plan is going to start at a disadvantage in the arena of public opinion. Still, the overriding sentiment today, on the left and the right, is anger flowing from a wounded idealism. For all their superficial, savvy, jaded cynicism, people thought that the American contract was, more or less, legitimate—and that meant they’d be given a fair shake. Millions of foreclosures, lay-offs, and banker bonuses later, this rather romantic conception of the American political system has been revealed to be far from the truth.
The sentiment is easy enough to recognize in the Occupy Wall Street movement, of course, with its dozens of signs relating to Banker greed and elite corruption. But a fascinating new report by Harvard sociologist Theda Skocpol (and two graduate students) shows how this shattered dream animates those on the right—often conceived of as the country’s self-styled thick-skinned, hard-scrabble, suck-it-up realists—just as much as those on the left, albeit with a very different focus. Instead of greedy bankers and corporate-shill lobbyists and politicians, the Tea Party set are angry at, primarily, immigrants for being, in a word, unfair:
The Harvard scholars found immigration to be a core, and highly emotive, Tea Party issue, even in Massachusetts, which has relatively low levels of illegal immigration and no foreign borders.
This impassioned opposition to illegal immigrants is often equated with racism, but Ms. Skocpol and her colleagues take great pains to point out that the Massachusetts Tea Partiers, whom they studied most closely, are vocally and actively opposed to overt racism. A racist poster to their Web site was publicly reprimanded and a plan was made to take down racist signs at a rally (though, in the event, the researchers didn’t spot any that needed removing). For the Tea Partiers, the major intellectual distinction isn’t between black and white — although that is the color of most of them — it is between deserving, hard-working citizen and unauthorized, foreign freeloader.
The political implications may surprise you—and, if we take Waldman’s criticism of the White House policy apparatus seriously, concern Obama supporters:
The Harvard scholars’ careful parsing of the thinking of the Tea Party has some important political implications. The first is that there is a latent but potentially vast divide between the grass roots and the conservative elite on the United States’ most important fiscal issue — the twin entitlements of Social Security and Medicare. Cutting these programs is a core tenet of faith for the party’s funders and its intellectuals. But the Tea Party’s rank and file views them as earned benefits that belong to hard-working Americans as surely as do their homes and private savings. […]
The second take-away is for the Democrats, particularly the technocrats among them. It has become conventional wisdom, including on the left, that the way to make social welfare programs affordable is to direct them at the people who really need them. If politics were a math exercise, that view would make a lot of sense.
But Ms. Skocpol and her colleagues’ study of the Tea Party suggests that the government spending programs that earn widespread, long-term public support, including among people with strongly conservative views, are those that are perceived to be both universal and deserved. Helping the poor is well and good, but when times get tough the institutions we are willing to pay for are those that assist virtuous, hard-working people — in other words, ourselves.
Keep this in mind next time you hear a Reasonable Democrat extolling the virtues of means-testing for Medicare or Social Security. On paper, yes, it makes abundant sense—in fact, it seems to be the height of fairness. But if Skocpol’s findings are correct, left-leaning wonks looking to shore-up the welfare state would do well to keep in mind that old saying about policy for the poor making for poor policy. In the abstract, it may be smart. But maybe the more important question isn’t whether it’s smart—it’s whether it’s “fair.”