When People Don’t Trust the Government

In one of the most perceptive articles I have read in a long time, pollster par excellance Stan Greenberg wonders why Democrats are not finding better traction with the voters. “With high unemployment and the rich getting richer,” writes Greenberg in the New York Times, “you would think that voters of average means would flock to progressives, who are supposed to have their interests in mind — and who historically have delivered for them.” Yes! That’s exactly what I would think! Instead voters around the world are deserting Democrats, Socialists, liberals and progressives.

The reason? Voters feel estranged from government, and they associate Democrats with government. “If Democrats are going to be encumbered by that link, they need to change voters’ feelings about government. They can recite their good plans as a mantra and raise their voices as if they had not been heard, but voters will not listen to them if government is disreputable. Oddly, many voters prefer the policies of Democrats to the policies of Republicans. They just don’t trust the Democrats to carry out those promises.”

Here’s what Greenberg’s polling has uncovered: “Government operates by the wrong values and rules, for the wrong people and purposes. . . .Government rushes to help the irresponsible and does little for the responsible. Wall Street lobbyists govern, not Main Street voters. Vexingly, this promotes both national and middle-class decline yet cannot be moved by conventional democratic politics. Lost jobs, soaring spending and crippling debt make America ever weaker, unable to meet its basic obligations to educate and protect its citizens. Yet politicians take care of themselves and party interests, while government grows remote and unresponsive, leaving people feeling powerless.

“If they are to win trust, and votes, Democrats must show they are as determined as the Tea Party movement to change the rules of the game. In our surveys and media work for Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, we found that only if people thought a candidate was going to change government in fundamental ways — starting with welfare and reinventing government — would they give permission to spend their money. The same is true today. In our recent Web survey of 2,000 respondents, voters respond strongly to Democratic messages on the economy only when a party leader declares, “We have to start by changing Washington. … The middle class won’t catch a break until we confront the power of money and the lobbyists.”

Greenberg recommends that Democrats adopt specific policies and positions. These include: “Detoxifying politics” by proposing to severely limit or bar individual and corporate campaign contribution; propose taxing lobbyist expenses and excessive chief executive bonuses and put a small fee on the sale of stocks, bonds and other financial instruments; propose to radically simplifying the tax code to allow only a few deductions; advocate policies that would control the borders and address problems of undocumented workers via comprehensive immigration reform; and get serious about reducing the country’s long-term deficits.

In other words, people want change Which, as Richard Cohen shrewdly pointed out in the Washington Post the other day, is precisely the program on which candidate Barack Obama was elected president. “Obama’s slogan was “Change.” It was supposed to suggest no more politics for the sake of politics. No more special-interest legislation. No more bridges to nowhere. But ever since the New Deal, the Democrats have been the party of programs. They spend money, and now there is really no money to spend.” Far from being the party of change, the Democrats have become the party of the status quo.

And as Greenberg astutely points out in his piece, this has killed Obama’s presidency. “Our research shows that the growth of self-identified conservatives began in the fall of 2008 with the Wall Street bailout,” writes Greenberg, “well before Mr. Obama embarked on his recovery and spending program. The public watched the elite and leaders of both parties rush to the rescue. The government saved irresponsible executives who bankrupted their own companies, hurt many people and threatened the welfare of the country. When Mr. Obama championed the bailout of the auto companies and allowed senior executives at bailed-out companies to take bonuses, voters concluded that he was part of the operating elite consensus. If you owned a small business that was in trouble or a home or pension that lost much of its value, you were on your own. As people across the country told me, the average citizen doesn’t “get money for free.” Their conclusion: Government works for the irresponsible, not the responsible. . . . {Voters] see a nexus of money and power, greased by special interest lobbyists and large campaign donations, that makes these outcomes irresistible. They do not believe the fundamentals have really changed in Mr. Obama’s Washington.”

Greenberg has brilliantly shown Democrats the path forward. The question is whether it is too late to save Obama. Perhaps if he could resurrect David Garth, and come out with one of those famous contrition ads like he did with New York City mayor John Lindsey in 1969 in which Lindsey admitted that he’d made mistakes, he might be able to turn things around. Of course, even that trick may not work. Lindsey only because he had two opponents splitting the vote against him, and his second term was a disaster.

[Cross-posted at JamieMalanowski.com]

Jamie Malanowski

Jamie Malanowski is a writer and editor. He has been an editor at Time, Esquire and most recently Playboy, where he was Managing Editor.