We’re used to assuming that most Americans don’t know a whole lot about government and public policy. Over the years I’ve been inclined to think that those of us in the commentariat tend to be overly cynical about this. Voters often can’t explain their opinions very clearly and often have a hard time getting the answers to quiz questions right, but they operate off a higher level of knowledge than we often give them credit for.For a long time, I have believed that, as a whole, the American voting population is a far more sophisticated body that a lot of political professionals give them credit for. I believe that the current economic crisis is going to lead to a real shift in how voters are going to judge their elected officials. Will it happen in next year's elections? Maybe not, but the longer the economy is in the toilet, the more sophisticated and knowledgeable Americans are going to get.
The reason that political professionals often think of voters as idiots to be manipulated is that the fail to see the dissonance between their faith in polls as indicators of group behavior and the viewing of individual results of the polls. Political professionals assume, for instance, that emotion can sway large groups of voters and history proves them right, a point no more strongly made than in the 2008 elections. But the problem with emotional responses is that after the emotional tide has washed away, we are left with the cold hard facts and those facts are evoking a different emotion, one of skepticism that the path we are on may not be the best for our country.
So what do our surprisingly knowledgeable fellow citizens think the government should be doing about our economic problems. Pollster Scott Rasmussen reports that 52% of Americans now worry that the government will do too much to fix the economy. That’s up (insignificantly) from 50% in March and (significantly) from 43% in mid-February. Only 31% fear the government will do too little, down from 40% in March and 43% in February. To put it another way, Americans in April worry that the government will do too much rather than too little by a 52%-31% margin, while Americans in February were split 43%-43% on whether the government was doing too much or too little. That’s a significant shift of opinion over a short period of time.Why the shift? My belief is that as Americans have begun educating themselves about economics (all basic economic books and most of the more complex economics books are checked out from my local library), there is becoming far less faith in the ability of government to fix the economy and a concern that the "solution" is not so much a solution as a massive sea change in American governing philosophy.
Whether you consider yourself a liberal or a conservative, by in large Americans don't like massive change in our govnernment in too quick a time. We like change, but we don't like whiplash. We like progress, but we don't want to rush headlong into it. When too much is changing too fast, Americans want to know why and that is why Americans are becoming more knowledgeable. But with the knowledge comes the danger to the govnerment in power--that they will be found out to be either (a) incompetent or (b) conspiratorial.
I still have faith in the American people to do what is best over time, despite any bumps in the road. I think that come 2012, we will be looking at a far different government.