The political theory of everything

THE POLITICAL THEORY OF EVERYTHING…. In the latest data from the Washington Post/ABC News poll, Americans seem to overwhelmingly agree with President Obama when it comes to a larger policy agenda, but approval of the president is down. They overwhelmingly reject Republican ideas and priorities, but when asked who they trust more when it comes to fiscal responsibility, Americans are split between Obama (45%) and the congressional GOP (44%).

There are similar examples throughout the data, and nearly identical results in the McClatchy-Marist poll released yesterday. Those looking for consistency in public attitudes are going to be disappointed — polls routinely show Americans making judgments that are contradictory and in conflict with what they say they want.

This is especially true of self-identified political independents, whose opinions often seem entirely incoherent.

Why is this? Kevin Drum had a compelling, albeit unsatisfying, explanation.

This will probably satisfy no one, but I think the answer is pretty simple. First: the vast, vast majority of independents don’t really have any idea what Obama’s plan to handle the deficit is. They just know that (a) the deficit is high and (b) Obama is president. Beyond that, there are kids to get to school, laundry to be done, bosses to be pleased, and leaky faucets to be fixed. The details of the deficit debate are just a bit of partisan background noise that they haven’t really parsed yet.

For all the talk about the common-sense wisdom of the electorate, Kevin is obviously right. It’s tempting to ask, after scrutinizing polling data, “Why would these voters want outcome A, and then endorse policies that result in outcome B?” The answer is impolitic, but accurate: it’s because these voters often don’t understand what it is they have opinions about.

They might hear a little something on the news, or catch a headline that gives them a hint about current events, or maybe overhear a conversation by the water-cooler, but in general folks struggle to keep up on the basics.

We see this all the time. Look at health care polling — the ACA is unpopular, but if you ask people whether they support the provisions within the law, it’s quite popular, indeed. And how can that happen? It’s because people have been told that “Obamacare” is bad, even if they don’t know what’s in it.

Having said all of this, in the budget debate, people’s instincts seem fairly sound. Even if they don’t know the details, or which party prefers which vision, they want Medicare left intact and see the value in raising taxes on the wealthy. They don’t need to read CBO reports to understand these priorities and appreciate why they make sense.

With that in mind, Greg Sargent noted this morning, “Either voters don’t know what Obama’s proposals are; or they do, but the GOP’s success in creating generalized anxiety about Dem overspending continues to dominate; or perhaps all views of Obama are colored by unease about the economy. Whatever the cause, closing this disconnect — translating support for Obama’s policies into confidence in his economic and fiscal leadership — is perhaps Obama’s central political challenge.”