Wanted: Voters’ Views on Changing Government

What do voters really think about dramatic changes already underway?

by Steven Rosenfeld

Today’s political chattering class—television barkers, talk radio hotheads, and even 2010’s most visible candidates—keep telling Americans how angry and flustered we have become, and that the solution has to do with reeling in a government run amok.

Whether it is CBS News’ latest poll (saying Americans are "pessimistic" and "dissatisfied" with Washington), or a Sunday New York Times analysis (declaring Republicans will "continue to benefit from a widespread belief among voters that government has gotten too expansive"), the narrative coming from those with the biggest podiums suggests that public officials will face a rage-driven reckoning in 2010.

Unfortunately, this politicized noise cloud is obscuring today’s biggest real-life political trend: that government, particularly at state and local levels, is not expanding but imploding. As tax revenues keep falling, budget cutters are dismantling, curtailing or increasing the cost of longtime services, particularly in education, social services, and preventive care. Yes, at the federal level, many members of Congress have tried to preserve a safety net by extending unemployment benefits, passing an economic stimulus package, reforming health insurance, and by continuing the bailouts of the too-big-to-fail sector, from Detroit carmakers to the very Wall Street titans who ignited the recession. But the biggest trend in government in 2010 is its demise, not growth.

What do most Americans think of the historic unraveling of local and state governments and the federal attempt to preserve some modicum of middle-class lifestyles? You would not know by relying on the mainstream media. Americans may be angry and frustrated, but what are they angry and frustrated about? Could they be angry that government and civil servants are not doing enough on their behalf during hard times?

A recent poll from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press suggests that American attitudes are not what has been portrayed in 2010’s dominant anti-government narrative. When asked to react positively or negatively to the labels bandied in media slugfests and political campaigns, Americans said "civil rights" and "progressive" had more positive connotations than "capitalism" and "libertarian." "Socialism" was seen positively by 29 percent of respondents.

"Socialism is a negative for most Americans, but certainly not all Americans. Capitalism is regarded positively by a majority of [the] public, though it is a thin majority," Pew said, discussing its political rhetoric test, which also noted "young people are more positive about socialism – and more negative about capitalism."  The survey also found that "More than twice as many blacks as whites react positively to ‘socialism’ (53% vs. 24%). Yet there are no racial differences in views of ‘capitalism’ – 50% of African Americans and 53% of whites have a positive reaction."

Pew’s findings suggest that Americans might be angrier about Wall Street selfishness than with government efforts to address shared problems and community needs. The poll points to today’s political iceberg—and hidden top story—that government is retreating more than expanding. This disconnect raises an obvious question: what do the very voters who elected today’s officeholders really think about their government’s changing shape?

Project Vote believes there are many issues and perspectives missing in the anger-filled, anti-government narrative promoted by many media organizations. There is the need for basic institutional memory—such as noting that millions of Americans protested the Iraq War, numbers that dwarf today’s Tea Party and suggest that anger is not new in politics. There is a lack of recognition that government at many levels is shrinking, and that people and communities may suffer as safety nets are shredded, despite warnings on these impacts from civil servants.

But also missing are the opinions and thoughts of America’s newest voters, the very people who were motivated enough—and maybe even angry—to resoundingly register and turn out to vote in 2008 in record numbers, particularly minorities and young people who voted for the first time or returned to the process after a long absence.

In the coming weeks, Project Vote—which helped hundreds of thousands of individuals to become registered voters in 2008—will be conducting a national poll of America’s newest voters to gauge their views on government’s role and performance. We do not know what these voters will say, but we suspect it—like Pew’s recent survey—will show a more nuanced view than today’s dominant narrative blaming big government for our woes.

Cross-posted at Project Vote's Voting Matters blog.

Tags: election reform, Project Vote, government, Voting Rights (all tags)


1 Comment

I look forward to seeing the results

of your polling.

by desmoinesdem 2010-05-27 03:29PM | 0 recs


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