A little ignorance goes a long way

There’s a lingering disconnect in most public opinion polls. When pollsters ask Americans what they consider to be the top issues facing the country, the American mainstream strongly agrees with the Democratic line: job creation and economic growth are paramount, and the deficit isn’t that important.

But when pollsters ask Americans about the deficit itself, the American mainstream tends to agree with the Republican line. The new Bloomberg News poll shows the public adopting all kinds of odd GOP talking points, from inspiring “confidence” through spending cuts to the deficit making the economy “unstable.”

Greg Sargent explained:

In other words, the public broadly believes in what Paul Krugman refers to as the “confidence fairy,” i.e., the notion that deficit cutting is an important component in restoring “economic confidence,” a notion that even the White House has endorsed. It also agrees with the GOP’s argument that excessive regulation and taxes create “uncertainty.”

Greg goes on to explain that the public may have “internalized the idea that government is a massive drag on the economy and can’t possibly create jobs,” in part because Republicans have been effective getting their ridiculous message out, and in part because Dems have been so inept in fighting back against the bogus argument.

Jonathan Bernstein has a related point that also rings true.

My comment, once again, is that I simply don’t believe that most people have any idea what “deficit” means. Or, rather, what “deficit” means to them is basically some version of “bad economic stuff.” I very much doubt that when mass publics answer survey questions about the deficit that what they think of is the difference between government revenues and government expenditures. Well, maybe some do — but at least in my view, many, perhaps most, don’t.

I’m sure everyone has heard this anecdote a hundred times, but I often think about one of the 1992 presidential candidate debates, at which a young voter asked, “[H]ow has the national debt personally affected each of your lives? And if it hasn’t, how can you honestly find a cure for the economic problems of the common people if you have no experience in what’s ailing them?”

President George H.W. Bush was first, and answered the question directly, talking about interest rates. The questioner wasn’t impressed, and talked about “friends that have been laid off in jobs.” Bush responded, “I’m not sure I get it. Help me with the question, and I’ll try to answer it.”

Bill Clinton had no such trouble. He realized that the woman said the “deficit,” but she was really just talking about the economy in general. Bush took the question literally, not realizing that the questioner didn’t know what the deficit even is.

My hunch is, public ignorance has gotten worse in the 20 years since. It’s fairly common to hear people say, “People are really struggling out there, so we better get the deficit under control.” They don’t realize — because no one in power has told them — that tackling the deficit would make matters worse, not better, for those hurting most.

And so the polls, the discourse, and the political world slide further down the rabbit hole.