By STANLEY B. GREENBERG
BARACK OBAMA can’t catch a break from the American public on the economy, even though he prevented a depression and saved global capitalism.
Perhaps the president finds solace in knowing he’s not alone. During this period of economic crisis and uncertainty, voters are generally turning to conservative and right-wing political parties, most notably in Europe and in Canada.
It’s perplexing. When unemployment is high, and the rich are getting richer, 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.
During the last half-century or so, when a Democratic president has led the country, people have tended to experience lower unemployment, less inequality and rising income compared with periods of Republican governance. There is a reason, however, that many voters in the developed world are turning away from Democrats, Socialists, liberals and progressives.
My vantage point on voter behavior comes through my company, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, and its work for center-left parties globally, starting with Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992. For the last decade, I have worked in partnership with James Carville conducting monthly polls digging into America’s mood and studying how progressives can develop successful electoral strategies. (I am also married to a Democratic congresswoman from Connecticut, Rosa L. DeLauro.)
In analyzing these polls in the United States, I see clearly that voters feel ever more estranged from government — and that 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.
When we conducted our election-night national survey after last year’s Republican sweep, voters strongly chose new investment over a new national austerity. They thought Democrats were more likely to champion the middle class. And as has become clear in the months since, the public does not share conservatives’ views on rejecting tax cuts and cutting retirement programs. Numerous recent polls have shown that the public sides with the president and Democrats on raising taxes to get to a balanced budget.
But in smaller, more probing focus groups, voters show they are fairly cynical about Democratic politicians’ stands. They tune out the politicians’ fine speeches and plans and express sentiments like these: “It’s just words.” “There’s just such a control of government by the wealthy that whatever happens, it’s not working for all the people; it’s working for a few of the people.” “We don’t have a representative government anymore.”
This distrust of government and politicians is unfolding as a full-blown crisis of legitimacy sidelines Democrats and liberalism. Just a quarter of the country is optimistic about our system of government — the lowest since polls by ABC and others began asking this question in 1974. But a crisis of government legitimacy is a crisis of liberalism. It doesn’t hurt Republicans. If government is seen as useless, what is the point of electing Democrats who aim to use government to advance some public end?
In earlier periods, confidence in the economy and rising personal incomes put limits on voter discontent. Today, a dispiriting economy combined with a well-developed critique of government leaves government not just distrusted but illegitimate.
GOVERNMENT operates by the wrong values and rules, for the wrong people and purposes, the Americans I’ve surveyed believe. 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.”
Why is that?
You do not have to look very far. If there is an article of faith among contemporary center-left leaders, it is that investment in education will pay dividends with increased productivity and increased income. And yet the evidence is piling up that the economy is not working for the middle class. Productivity and education increase but wages do not follow.
When presented with vivid descriptions of income inequality in America, people are deflated, rather than empowered to bring change. In surveys, they tell me that they think the politicians and the chief executives are “piggybacking off each other.” They think that the game is rigged and that the wealthy and big industries get policies that reinforce their advantage. And they do not think their voices matter.
That government and the elite appear blithely to promote globalization and economic integration, while the working population loses income, makes the frustration more intense.
Our research shows that the growth of self-identified conservatives began in the fall of 2008 with the Wall Street bailout, 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.
Everything they witness affirms the public’s developing view of how government really works. They 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.
What should Democrats do?
The Democrats have to start detoxifying politics by proposing to severely limit or bar individual and corporate campaign contributions, which would mean a fight with the Supreme Court. They must make the case for public financing of campaigns and force the broadcast and cable networks to provide free time for candidate ads. And they must become the strongest advocates for transparency in campaign donations and in the lobbying of elected officials.
IF they want to win the trust of the public, Democrats should propose taxing lobbyist expenses and excessive chief executive bonuses and put a small fee on the sale of stocks, bonds and other financial instruments. By radically simplifying the tax code to allow only a few deductions, the Democrats would generate new revenue and remove the loopholes that allow special interests to win favorable treatment. The ordinary citizen, according to our surveys and focus groups, feels there is no way to play that game and views simplifying the tax code as an important reform.
To show that government can protect the nation’s interests, Democrats should advocate policies that would control the borders and address problems of undocumented workers.
Dealing with this is even more important in Europe, where anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic parties are surging at the expense of the mainstream left and right parties in France, Austria, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden and Norway, site of the recent slaughter for which an extreme right-winger has claimed responsibility.
In the face of such madness, it is tempting to view the issue as illegitimate, but mainstream parties do so at great cost. Our work in Austria and Britain shows that it is possible for progressives to champion immigration policies that protect the labor market and promote and require integration, beginning with language and schooling.
In the United States, those who advocate comprehensive immigration reform are demonstrating that they consider responsibility a primary value. My surveys show that voters want comprehensive immigration reform rather than half measures. They would like to see strong enforcement at the border and in the workplace, and the expulsion of troublesome undocumented immigrants. While favoring toughness, they also want to find ways to put undocumented workers on a path to citizenship.
These measures, if pushed by Democrats, would show that government operated by the right values. Just as Mr. Clinton’s welfare reform in 1996 required efforts to make work pay and expand child care, immigration reform can show how progressives punish irresponsibility and reward responsibility.
Finally, progressives have to be serious about reducing the country’s long-term deficits, constraining special interest spending and tax breaks and making government accountable to the ordinary citizen. The deficit matters to people and has real meaning and consequences. A government that spends and borrows without the kind of limits that would govern an ordinary family is going to have big troubles. Voters I’ve studied say things like, if “we keep spending like this, we’re going to be bankrupt and there won’t be anything for anybody,” especially “our children.” The final straw is the government’s decision to continue spending and to put the country deeper into debt and more dependent on China.
President Obama understood this essential lesson when he decided to unveil his own plan for long-term deficit reduction. The fog of the debt-limit debate has obscured that commitment, and his determination to raise taxes on the most fortunate to reduce our indebtedness and fund his priorities. Polls show that the public is with him, scornful of the Republican demand for no tax increases. Rather than treating deficit reduction as an “eat your peas moment,” progressives should embrace the liberal think tanks’ bold deficit plans, which would raise taxes more and defend progressive priorities.
That would be in the spirit of President Clinton’s first economic plan, which used a 50-50 mix of tax increases and spending cuts to cut the deficit. That laid the groundwork for a restoration in trust in government later in the 1990s.
Recently, it has been the conservatives, the Tea Party members and the anti-immigrant groups who understand the anger with government, and rush in to exploit it. Perhaps now, with the debacle in Washington, liberals will become instinctively angry with this illegitimate government and build their politics from there.
Stanley B. Greenberg is the chief executive of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, a polling company that works with center-left political parties in the United States and abroad.