Why Americans Don’t Want Politicians to Tell Them the Truth

The 2020 Democratic presidential candidates face a whole array of issues they’ll need to address during the campaign season. But overriding every one of them is the challenge Martin Longman and Paul Waldman wrote about on Monday. Here are the dynamics they both identified:

  1. Republicans have demonstrated their ongoing commitment to total obstruction of anything Democrats attempt to accomplish.
  2. Since Republicans made the use of the filibuster a requirement for passage of any major legislation, it is now assumed that for any bill to pass the Senate, it will need 60 votes.
  3. It is impossible to imagine a scenario where Democrats gain a 60 vote majority in the Senate anytime soon.

As a result, all of the promises Democratic candidates are making will be impossible to achieve unless they have a plan for how to change those dynamics. This isn’t the first time Waldman has tackled this issue. Back in 2016 he wrote: “Please let 2016 end the bipartisanship BS.”

So imagine if a candidate in the general election, or a president in his inaugural speech, said, “This is my program. I realize that the folks in the other party don’t like it. There may be a few places where we can compromise, and if so, that would be terrific. But I’m going to treat the voters like adults and tell them that I’m not expecting a whole lot of cooperation. I’m going to fight for what I promised to do when I ran, and if you don’t like the results, you can turn me out in four years.”

That would at least be honest, and nobody would be disappointed when the result is partisan fighting.

Let’s be honest. The reason candidates don’t talk like that is because it would be a death knell to their presidential ambitions. Perhaps it would be a noble gesture to treat voters like adults and tell them the truth, but unless someone was willing to launch a presidential campaign simply for the purpose of sending that message, it would all be in vain, because they’d never get elected.

One of the things Republicans understand about a large swath of voters is that, when it comes to politics, they’re not interested in complexity and nuance. Mike Lofgren told us how that worked several years ago.

Should Republicans succeed in obstructing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress’s generic favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner.

A deeply cynical tactic, to be sure, but a psychologically insightful one that plays on the weaknesses both of the voting public and the news media. There are tens of millions of low-information voters who hardly know which party controls which branch of government, let alone which party is pursuing a particular legislative tactic. These voters’ confusion over who did what allows them to form the conclusion that “they are all crooks,” and that “government is no good,” further leading them to think, “a plague on both your houses” and “the parties are like two kids in a school yard.” This ill-informed public cynicism, in its turn, further intensifies the long-term decline in public trust in government that has been taking place since the early 1960s – a distrust that has been stoked by Republican rhetoric at every turn (“Government is the problem,” declared Ronald Reagan in 1980).

Either because they are too busy with other things or are more at ease with a view that sees the world in binary black/white terms, a lot of voters aren’t really interested in understanding the intricacies of why Washington is so broken. They just want someone to break up the gridlock. That is precisely what led to the “burn it all down” cries on both the right and the left during the 2016 election. In other words, it is what brought us Donald Trump.

The real dilemma for Democrats is: how do you talk to those voters about a world that is increasingly more complex and nuanced? In many ways, that is precisely what scares them and feeds the politics of anger and resentment, regardless of whether it’s directed at Wall Street or immigrants.

Three years ago David Roberts addressed that question by pointing out that we are not simply divided by politics and geography, but also psychologically.

Think of the spectrum as issuing from our sensitivity to threat. Those who are more sensitive to threat, to negative stimuli in their environment…are likely to value order and tradition over chaos and novelty. They are more attuned to in-group/out-group distinctions and to the purity of the in-group. They prefer clarity to ambiguity, hierarchy to egalitarianism. (More on this research here.)

The preference for clarity over ambiguity is why I asked the question a few years ago about whether uncertainty is a liberal value. That’s because certainty is the hallmark of ideologues and authoritarians.

Having grown up in a family and community where questioning was discouraged in favor of dogma handed down by those in positions of authority, I learned that an embrace of difficult questions and uncertainty was the only path available to me if I wanted to sort through what I truly believed. It was a terrifying journey to learn to think for myself and admit that I didn’t always have the answers. In the end, it left me extremely wary of anyone who presented themselves as an ideologue enveloped in certainty.

It is possible that by getting rid of the filibuster in the Senate, Democrats can break down the major barrier that is producing gridlock in our politics. When it comes to the urgency of some of the issues we face around climate change, health care, and immigration, an excellent case can be made that doing so is the only alternative. That is precisely why Barack Obama eventually embraced his pen and phone strategy in the last two years of his second term. Given the positioning of the Republican Party, it was the only way to address some of the issues we were confronting as a nation.

But let’s be very clear, there are two issues with going in that direction. The first, as we’ve seen with Obama’s pen and phone strategy, is that a Republican president and/or congressional majority can easily overturn any progress that is made. On a deeper level, it lets Americans off the hook when it comes to facing the nuances and complexities ingrained in our democratic process, which was designed to require dialogue, negotiation, and compromise. Until we grapple with that, we’ll remain vulnerable to ideologues and authoritarians who fulfill our desire for certainty.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.