Status Quo Nation

by: Chris Bowers

Thu May 21, 2009 at 16:55


Give the media and blog play the new Pew Survey on political values and core attitudes seems to be getting, I find it necessary to offer a further rebuttal to the usefulness of the insights provided by the poll.

No matter what people might say about "big government" or the social safety net in the abstract, when asked about specific policies, the vast majority of Americans don't actually want to change anything. From a Harris poll two years ago:

These are just some of the results of a nationwide Harris Poll of 2,223 adults surveyed online between March 6 and 14, 2007 by Harris Interactive®. Other findings include:

  • A 71 percent to 15 percent majority of adults do not think "it is necessary to increase taxes to reduce the budget deficit". Large majorities of Republicans, Democrats and Independents feel this way;

  • Even if taxes "had to be raised", very large majorities oppose raising the estate tax (64%) gas taxes (82%), income taxes (81%), the social security tax (83%), and the Medicare tax (87%);

  • The only two taxes on the list shown to those interviewed which would be acceptable to majorities of adults ("if taxes had to be raised") are taxes on cigarettes and beer and alcohol, with 73 percent and 72 percent of adults respectively saying these so called "taxes" should be increased;

  • When it comes to cutting government spending, there is little support for cutting any substantial programs. Given a list of twelve federal government programs and asked to pick two which should be cut ("if spending had to be cut") space programs top the list by a wide margin (51%). Significant minorities, all under 30 percent, pick welfare programs (28%), defense spending (28%), farm subsidies (24%), environmental programs (16%), homeland security (12%) and transportation (11%). Hardly anyone would cut Medicaid (4%), education (3%), Social Security (2%) or Medicare (1%).

By throwing around terms like "socialism" and asking vague questions about political values, we can pretend that there are major policy differences in America. However, when people are actually asked about government programs, the bi-partisan, status quo nature of America is truly revealed.

Miniscule percentages--less than 5%--of the country want to make cuts to Medicaid, education, Social Security and Medicare when given a choice between those and other programs. The percentage of people who want to cut defense spending is down, too. In addition to unemployment, these programs account for roughly 80% of government spending, and very few people want to cut them.

On the other side of the coin, it seems that the only tax increases people favor are taxes on the wealthy, and also cigarette and alcohol taxes. Everything else is pretty unpopular.

The simple fact is that the overwhelming political advice from the American is to maintain the status quo. And so, our politicians do just that. I've said it before and I'll say it again: right-wing Republicans and left-wing Democrats are only arguing over 3% of the economy. We could bother to point that out to the country, but it seems a lot easier to call each other names and pretend that our abstract self-identifications actually constitute large policy differences.

Chris Bowers :: Status Quo Nation

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Status Quo Nation | 24 comments
I'm not sure this poll is anything to be happy about (4.00 / 2)
True, it says that Americans want a lot of things from their government, but it also says that they don't want to pay for any of it. That's not a sustainable situation. China isn't going to keep paying our bills forever.

Taxes on the wealthy (4.00 / 1)
"it seems that the only tax increases people favor are taxes on the wealthy"

I wish you were right, but look at the 64% who oppose raising the estate tax.  I'm continually amazed as how many people viscerally identify with trust fund babies.


well I think a high percentage responded to the (4.00 / 2)
"death tax" framing, and the democrats never responded with the "paris hilton" tax framing.

I don 't know whether to take the poll seriously or not because just a few weeks ago Chris ran a poll where Americans including wealthy ones said they were undertaxed.

My blog  


[ Parent ]
The Rise of the Culture Wars (0.00 / 0)
Well I've tried writing this a few times and I can't quite spit it out, but basically various social issues are the big dividing line between the two parties.  That's what my gut says, anyway, I don't have any polls on hand to confirm/reject this.

That's the dividing line between elites (4.00 / 1)
If you look at voters however....  Off the top of my head, I think it was something like a quarter of Democratic voters have generally opposed abortion while around a third of Republicans generally support abortion.  I suspect the issue has more importance to elites than it does to average Americans, although both sides can rely on a rabid group of supporters who can make their influence felt disproportionate to their numbers.

I believe that the media tends to uses "moderate Republican" to refer to a "pro-choice" Republican, regardless of the politician's stance on other issues.

Things You Don't Talk About in Polite Company: Religion, Politics, the Occasional Intersection of Both


[ Parent ]
Defense spending (4.00 / 4)
The problem is that defense spending is rising not staying the same.  Space is the new foreign aid.  A small expenditure with a visceral and imo no-nothing opposition.  Welfare?  Ithought that was "dead" as an issue.  What a poor (and stupid) time to cut this.

Second, one important semi-elite group is on record for wanting to cut Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security: the Blue Dogs.  The editorial writers and the MSM are also all aboard on this.  The 1% must be all in the congress or the media.  I'd love to hand Jim Cooper his political head.  The man is in a more liberal district than Alan Grayson and he's leading the charge against "entitlements."  What is wrong with this man?

I really wish somebody would ask about corporate welfare.  Maybe TARP.  


me too -- where was the option on corp & Wall St subsidies, and trillions to them, etc? (4.00 / 2)
and where was the responder option about "Free trade" and/or outsourcing?

aren't there multiple polls that show a different result than this one -- that show that clear majorities want govt to do more -- and are willing to pay for it?

and on Defense spending -- i think most ppl have no clue how much goes to it every year -- and how many additional billions we give to other countries in money and arms, etc...


[ Parent ]
Pew released some data on free trade in April (0.00 / 0)
According to them, there is now more support for free trade agreements than there was last year.  More Democrats say free trade agreements are a good thing rather than a bad thing.  Young people seem to be the demographic that is most in favor of free trade agreements.  In fact, age seems to be a much bigger predictor of attitudes towards NAFTA-like agreements than things like income, race, or even partisan identification.

Things You Don't Talk About in Polite Company: Religion, Politics, the Occasional Intersection of Both

[ Parent ]
Perhaps the older you are, (0.00 / 0)
the more respect you have for unions?

[ Parent ]
That seems to be untrue (0.00 / 0)
The references that I could find suggest that the current 18-29 demographic is more supportive of unions than older Americans, but I don't have any numbers.

Things You Don't Talk About in Polite Company: Religion, Politics, the Occasional Intersection of Both

[ Parent ]
Maybe its about a global perspective? (0.00 / 0)
The younger generations have more fully accepted the reality that the entire world in this together. It not enough to make the world safe for the American economy, the American workers, and American business. I'm not that young, but I admit struggling with issues like trade, unions, and "buy American" campaigns because they often sound as though they are based on nationalism.


"It sounds wrong...
     ...but its right."


[ Parent ]
Well Anthony, that's what they were taught (0.00 / 0)
what we were taught-with religous zealotry-at university. No other viewpoint is offerred or even acknowledged.

[ Parent ]
I don't recall ever hearing about free trade agreements (0.00 / 0)
in any one of my classes while I was in the university.  maybe such is restricted to the social sciences and humanities?

"It sounds wrong...
     ...but its right."


[ Parent ]
I was assuming we were talking about business students (0.00 / 0)
at both the BA and MBA level. As for Liberal Arts, who knows?

[ Parent ]
If you're under 24 (0.00 / 0)
NAFTA has been law for as long as you've been aware of politics.  People tend to support the status quo, all things being equal.

[ Parent ]
Which once again reinforces the obvious conclusion (0.00 / 0)
That the average American is, once removed from their specific areas of expertise (and often even within them, if experience serves as any guide), a MORON.

E.g. a majority don't believe in evolution (which is astoundingly verifiable by evidence) but do believe in a fairly literal conception of god (for which there is, has been and forever will be absolutely ZERO evidence). A large minority rejects manmade global warming, and not once but TWICE elected one of the stupidest high-level politicians in American history (and the second time around it was even a slim majority). Huge numbers still believe that there's a solid Iraq-9/11 connection. And so on.

So it comes as no surprise that an overwhelming majority either believe that it's ok to have a permanent huge budget deficit (which I seroiusly doubt they believe), or that it can be reduced without either tax increases or budget cuts.

Perhaps we need to be renamed the United States of Magic? We have RW magical thinking in the form of supply-side economics and how Bush was a great president. We have LW magical thinking in the form of 11D chess Obamabots. And we have centrist magical thinking in the form of free tax and government ponies for all!

Ok, this is a rant, I'll grant (no rhyme or pun intended). But seriously, how can one not get into rant mode overdrive when one sees such idiocy?

"Those who stand for nothing fall for anything...Mankind are forever destined to be the dupes of bold & cunning imposture" -- Alexander Hamilton


It's very easy to explain (4.00 / 1)
As noted in the Pew survey, Americans still haven't moved away from the belief that government is wasteful and inefficient, so there is always a belief that spending can be trimmed without a cut in services.

If we take health care as an example, I think there is a segment of the population who just won't be swayed by the argument that government can run health care better than private entities, but can be convinced that to support a national health care plan by the argument that, in the long run, government is the only entity that will be able to run health care.  Sure, people think the Pentagon can be wasteful, but I don't think very many people are actually arguing that we privatize the military to save money; national defense is one of those things which you only want government to handle, even if it is wasteful.  So, there's a certain constituency that will be swayed by an alarmist argument that health insurance companies are going to go the way of AIG, whether that is actually true or not.

I must admit, though, that it is easy to understand why the Founding Fathers seemed so distrustful of mass democracy.

Things You Don't Talk About in Polite Company: Religion, Politics, the Occasional Intersection of Both


[ Parent ]
One of my favorite all-time quotes (0.00 / 0)
Attributable to I don't know who, is that the reason that the US has been so successful is that it was designed by geniuses so that it could be run by idiots. Until 8 years ago, I, and many others, believed this to be true. Bush, I think, proved this to be untrue.

In any case, I'm talking about the sort of situational idiocy that so many people display on a daily basis, of being able to say, believe in and do demonstrably stupid and nonsensical things that are not based in empirical reality or logically plausible. I think that it applies to this poll.

A current instance of this is Obamabots who defend Obama when he says and does nearly the exact same things that Bush said and did, under the belief that because Obama's a smarter and better man, it's somehow "different". Bush on preventive detention, military commissions and no investigations = BAD. Obama on same = he's a pragmatic genius who know's what he's doing so STFU and leave the man alone you hater!

Same thing here. It makes no sense that efficiencies alone can balance the budget. It could be 100% efficient and still be in deficit. Anyone who's tried to balance their own budget knows this. At some point, it becomes inescapable that you have to either cut expenses or bring in more revenue. To believe otherwise is magical thinking.

Yet that is precisely what all these people believe. It's not even a widely-held myth, like that we spend more than other countries on foreign aid, or that we alone have never done anything bad to other countries, save a few "mistakes". It's both empirically and logically unsupportable thinking that doesn't pass the idiot test.

I think that what this really has to do with is the attitude of a majority of Americans that good governance is something that they have a right to but without their being obliged to do their part to make sure that they get it. It's this sense of benign neglect, "set it and forget it" entitlement that they live under that perplexes me. They just expect someone else to make it happen, and when it doesn't, they act outraged, or cynical, but remain passive.

They don't look at government like they do their cars, houses, bodies, etc., that if they are neglected, they degrade over time, and fail to see that government is exactly like these things in this sense. Thus the "Keep my taxes low, don't cut my services, but balance the damn budget!" idiocy, stemming from a refusal/inability to look at government responsibly and intelligently. America the Cable Guys and Gals: Git er done!

"Those who stand for nothing fall for anything...Mankind are forever destined to be the dupes of bold & cunning imposture" -- Alexander Hamilton


[ Parent ]
Bush partly privatized the military (0.00 / 0)
And he paid top dollar to do it.  That's what Blackwater did (now Xe).  That's what those other guys did.  Condi Rice insisted on rent-a-thugs rather than US Marines.

Who designed and mandated torture at Abu Gharib?  The rent-a-thugs. Did the CEO war profiteers go to jail?  No.  The BushCo officials?  No.  Only the little soldiers who took the pictures.

Katrina?  Rent-a-disaster (no clean up, just disaster).

The Bushies may not have believed this was more efficient.  They did believe it was an easy way to make their friends and spinsors richer and create future wealth for themselves.


[ Parent ]
I think that this was done (4.00 / 1)
partly for profit, and partly out of ideology, i.e. that which holds that the private sector will always do things better than government. It was always hard to tell with the Bushies which motivation was the predominant one, but I think that both were at work at all times. Same thing with Iraq, which was partly for oil and to enrich the MIC, and partly for imperial and perceived national security interests.

Sadly, while clearly not as stupid, delusional and ideological, Obama seems more than willing to accomodate himself to the sorts of people who were behind both sets of motivations--the ideological and the self-interested--that predominated in the Bush regime, for what appears to be purely political reasons. I.e. they're still around, they still have pull, they're still politically dangerous, and he's not about to take them on head-on--if at all.

And so long as the public doesn't see this as a problem, he'll be able to get away with it. Obama's genius is in knowing what the public either wants, or can be convinced that it wants, or is willing to allow, and then being able to masterfully (from a political, not policy point of view) work within those outlines to achieve what he wants to achieve.

The problem, though, is that one, what he wants to achieve is not what he claimed to want to achieve as a candidate--let alone what the left wants him to achieve--and two, he's not very good at, or at least doesn't seem terribly eager, to push the boundaries of what the public wants, or can be convinced that it wants, or is willing to allow. He is a man who is happiest working within existing constraints, and making the most of them (per his political and policy goals), but not one who wants to or enjoys broadening those constraints.

We have elected a man who is the consummate moderate, on both a policy and political level, who simply will not leave the center, be it principled or merely "pragmatic". Sometimes he'll veer a little left (releasing OLC memos), and sometimes a little right (preventive detention "with oversight!"). But more or less, he'll always hew towards the center, be it because it's safe (my guess), or because he actually subscribes to its Broderisms.

And we're stuck with him and this affinity. The most that we can hope for, I now believe, is to nudge him in certain directions. But we're simply not going to get him to change his fundamental political worldview and MO, which is profoundly cautious and centrist.

"Those who stand for nothing fall for anything...Mankind are forever destined to be the dupes of bold & cunning imposture" -- Alexander Hamilton


[ Parent ]
This is yet another example (4.00 / 4)
of how limited our political discourse has become.  For example, none of my Senators or my House Rep. (Dems all) can even bring themselves to utter the words 'public option' or 'single-payer' with regard to health care, let alone endorse the concept.  Ignore it and maybe it will go away.

Likewise, with taxation, the option to raise corporate taxes is never mentioned in polls like this.  People need to know that when the federal income tax started, corporations and individuals paid approximately equal shares.  Now, individuals pay four times as much as corporations.  Making corporations pay their fair share would go a long ways toward eliminating the deficit, but that's an option which never gets presented.  Instead, the elites have us fighting over 'death taxes' versus 'vice taxes', when the real solution to deficits lies elsewhere.  

Decarbonize, Deglobalize, Demilitarize


Again, I would suggest a focus on spending is too narrow a frame. (4.00 / 2)

1) increased spending by government can be a result of conservative measures triumphing over a progressive philosophy.

A)One example would be Medicare subsidizing HMO's for patient care it could do for lower cost itself.

B)Another would be the huge financing costs of infrastructure projects, costs that are borne by local communities because the the federal government (post-Reagan) no longer believes in subsidizing public investment, costs that raise the total cost of the project itself.

C)Thousands of people process student loans and their repayment, when alternatively the government could just pay the expenses of the college directly.

D) And of course, there are massive bureacracies all over DC, Maryland, and Virginia, precisely because the federal government chooses to flexible regulation (with lots of loopholes and fine print) instead of ironclad directives or outright ownership.

E) There would seem to be numerous other examples of government propping up the market, at greater expense to itself, simply out of a philosphy that values the market above all else.

2) Conversely, if greater government spending can be the result of conservative measures, some of the greatest progressive measures can be achieved with relatively little funding

A) Public Financing of campaigns

B) Transforming the WTO from an institution that constantly lowers "barriers to trade" to instead an institution that loosely coordinates the subsidies, tariffs, etc. of individual nations so that collectively they are coherent, well-measured, and not off-setting.

C) Mandating Employee Councils, the legally enforceable right of employees (and their representatives) to information and consultation

D) A public-private partnership that guarantees job slots for high-performing students studying in selective fields

E) Combining all transportation funds into one funding bucket, with awards for all projects based on the same criterion, instead of having different funding levels for different types of transportation (this would get us away from a knee-jerk support of highways, and would ensure that the best planned projects are the ones that get funding).

F) Requiring H1-B applicants to join a union, or better yet, deny any renewals for the same applicant after an initial two-year visa is exhausted.

In any case, that's how I see it.  


Limits to polling (4.00 / 2)
I've been privy to thousands of market research polls over the years and have come to understand that you can't rely on people to tell you what they want/don't want. Instead, more often than not these polls are simply providing a snapshot of current attitudes that bear little to no insight into real trends in desires or needs. For instance, a typical consumer survey might ask you if you expect to make a major household appliance purchase and you generally would say no based on your current outlook. But then two days later your dryer breaks. Or a survey might ask you if you plan to acquire new electronics and you say "no." But then the latest I-phone comes out and you "have to have it." The reality is that polls always will capture a "steady state" situation and not true emerging trends. I understand your urge to objectify policy differences based on quantitative data, but it is a goal that is overly simplistic.

Save Our Schools! March & National Call to Action, July 28-31, 2011 in Washington, DC: http://www.saveourschoolsmarch...

I think there are some insights here (4.00 / 1)
Now that I've thought about it, a bit.  Or rather, I think it confirms some things that I think anyways.

It's easier to sell progressive change if it's framed as a non-revolution.  Usually, the only time you get massive shifts is if you have a perception of crisis.

It's easier to change things if you do what Republicans have done in the past and slip amendments quietly into legislation rather than use full frontal political assaults, although you occasionally need legislative floor fights to rally your base.

Too many people are too comfortable with their current lives to see a large populist uprising.  To change that, things need to get worse.

Things You Don't Talk About in Polite Company: Religion, Politics, the Occasional Intersection of Both


Status Quo Nation | 24 comments
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