Sunday, July 05, 2009

Cognitive Dissonance

People don't want "big government," but they do want big government programs:
Polls show that public majorities think the government's rapidly growing cost is worrisome, yet most want better health care and curbs on global warming — but they're wary of giving government too much power to do either.

The success of those ventures in Washington could depend on how leaders frame the question during debate, said John Geer , a political science professor at Vanderbilt University .

"If you ask people, 'Do you want big government?' you get one answer," he said. "But if you say, 'Should the government have more control over the excesses of the marketplace?' you get a different one."

Even in this dismal economy, "there's no sense that the public has shifted and is more tolerant of a bigger role for government," said Michael Dimock , an associate director of the Pew Research Center , which has polled recently on the subject.

On the other hand, several surveys have shown that large segments of the public want the government to expand health care while curbing its costs, reign in business excesses and provide some safety net for the less fortunate.
When I was getting my degree in political science, I learned how important framing was, particularly in polls. If you ask respondents if they want the government to spend more money on "social welfare programs" you get a big majority opposed, but if you ask them if they want to spend more on education, health care, etc. that result is reversed. This is, of course, because "welfare," like "big government," have been turned into bad words in our political culture because people don't recognize they encompass policies there is actually broad support for.

This is particularly frustrating for progressives (who call themselves "progressive" because the term "liberal" has similarly been maligned) since conservatives have become so good at the word manipulation (so good that they often control the debate despite high unpopularity of their pols and policies). But many Democratic politicians don't help by playing along (President Clinton started this by famously declaring that the "era of big government is over," as the article points out). Instead, they should be explaining to people that "big government" is what you have when you want more government involvement in education, health care, etc. and that conservatives want "big government" too - but they want it in areas involving your personal freedoms and privacy, not in the name of the common good for all. Of course, this would require a certain nuance and maturity often lacking in American politics. Can we handle it? I don't know. But liberal politics will almost certainly continue to suffer until its proponents become as good at framing the debate as the other side.

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