Saturday, May 19, 2012

Which Voters are Getting What They Want?

Charles Pierce has taken apart most of David Brooks' exposition on "The Age of Innocence", but I think that the following claim deserves some attention:
Leaders today do not believe their job is to restrain popular will. Their job is to flatter and satisfy it. A gigantic polling apparatus has developed to help leaders anticipate and respond to popular whims. Democratic politicians adopt the mind-set of marketing executives. Give the customer what he wants. The customer is always right.

Having lost a sense of their own frailty, many voters have come to regard their desires as entitlements. They become incensed when their leaders are not responsive to their needs. Like any normal set of human beings, they command their politicians to give them benefits without asking them to pay.
I don't think that there's any way to dispute how poll-driven politics has become. Mitt Romney personifies the worst of that phenomenon - if you want to know what he thinks about an issue, all you have to do is check the latest poll and you'll find that he has undergone a heartfelt transformation from his previous stated opinions and now agrees, with every fiber of his being, with the position he believes will help him win the election. Don't ask him what he said on prior occasions because he may not remember the position he took - but rest assured, whatever it was, he stands by it.

Brooks suffers from the standard beltway pundit's obsession with Social Security and Medicare, so I expect that if pushed on the issue he would point to those two government programs as proof of his latest imagined transformation of human nature. But Medicare and Medicaid were created in 1965, a mere three years after Brooks' imagined peak of American civil society, by which time Social Security had been in effect for thirty years. The good, wholesome voters of the past asked for and received those programs from enlightened politicians who respected the way government was supposed to work - unlike the self-interested voters of today who merely ask that those programs be continued, or at least not too badly devastated. Shame!

Brooks thus complains about how workers "want great lifestyles without long work hours." (Alas, we cannot all be New York Times columnists.) "They want dynamic capitalism but also personal security." If you could accomplish that, would it not be a good thing? "European welfare states go broke trying to deliver these impossibilities." Um, yeah, rather than legislating a shortened work week, supporting unions, and offering a broad social safety net, it's a darn shame this country isn't more like Germany.

Seriously, though, if workers want short work weeks and politicians do exactly what workers want, why don't we have a shorter work week? Why do we have, instead, more jobs being classified as "exempt" such that workers can be salaried with no cap on their weekly hours? Why isn't the minimum wage higher? Why do middle class voters pay any taxes at all - who, after all, wants to pay taxes? Brooks shares a common sentiment about populism and describes the slippery slope that should be resulting from that populism, but where can we actually see that slippery slope in action?

Meanwhile, we have had poll-driven promises from both political parties, and most notably from the Republican Party, for decades. All of the Republican litmus test issues are poll-driven. Yet when in office, even when they hold all three branches of government, the Republicans tend not to deliver on those issues. Worse, even though their voters say they want a balanced budget, the Republicans habitually break the bank. The reasons for that are obvious - the Republican Party is interested in winning elections. By becoming the "pro-life" party, the Republicans can push that issue in every election. But if Congress and the President were to deliver, pfft - gone. Yes, we get lots of populist, poll-driven promises in their campaigns, but if it's not an issue the party actually cares about you simply cannot expect that anything will get done - and should expect the opposite if it's an issue that can be recycled from election to election.

Brooks is, in effect, confusing the bread and circuses with the actual work of government. Brooks could find plenty to criticize in the actual workings of government, and how the system has become skewed to the incredible advantage of wealthy people (like him) but... nah, easier to blame the plebs.

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