A new Bloomberg poll finds that by a two-to-one margin, likely voters gave the wrong answer to three basic questions about the nexus between government and the economy. Specifically:
Although the stimulus package signed by Pres. Obama contained significant tax cuts for 95 percent of working Americans ($800 per married couple, more if qualify various targeted tax cuts, such as those paying college tuition, the unemployed, etc) by about two-to-one likely voters said their taxes had gone up under Obama;
Although the economy has grown for four consecutive quarters (that’s almost a whole year), Americans by a wide margin believe that it has shrunk; and
Although most of the TARP money that bailed out Wall Street has already been paid back, and the current expectation is that the government will end up making a $16 billion profit on that part of the program, 60 percent of respondents say they believe the TARP money is lost for good.
A woman from St. Paul is even used as the symbol of those who believe that Obama is “all about raising taxes.”
These results are all among likely voters, so presumably they are even better informed than the 60 percent of American adults who won’t vote. Oy.
“The public view of the economy is at odds with the facts, and the blame has to go to the Democrats,” said J.Ann Selzer, president of Selzer and Co., a Des Moines-based firm that conducted the nationwide survey. “It does not matter much if you make change, if you do not communicate change.”
Maybe that’s exactly right, but it seems oversimplified. I don’t believe the Dems have done a great job of what we now call “messaging” during this campaign, but getting accurate information into the minds of the general population has always been difficult. I’ve never quite recovered from the Strib Days experience of writing up a 1998 poll in which Minnesotans were simply asked to name their U.S. Senators. Only 20 percent could do it. And these were Minnesotans, gosh darn it.
I always think of that poll result when people blame the media for the low level of public awareness of whatever it is the blamer thinks the public should know. We scribblers collectively have plenty of shortcomings, but we have not been covering up the names of your U.S. Senators. In fact, those names appear on the front page many times a year in headline type.
It used to be (for real) that 50 percent and up could name their senators. Those numbers headed down about the time that television became the dominant medium of communication. (See Neal Postman: “Amusing Ourselves to Death.”) The internet — the next new dominant medium — is undoubtedly changing how our brains work and what we know just as dramatically, but I haven’t read the book that captures the implication of this transition as brilliantly as Postman captured that one.
As one who has misspent his adult life on what we might call the “informed electorate” project, this stuff feels kinda personal. On the other hand, getting mad at the electorate for not knowing the stuff you think needs to be known is a dangerous game too. It comes across as arrogant and elitist and alienates the very people whom you would like to have listen to your side of the story.
I can think of ten more asides to the problem raised by this poll and the ongoing problem it represents, but I’ll restrain myself. Dems are about to take a midterm butt-whipping, possibly of historic proportions and the temptation to blame the message or the messager or the messagees will be powerful. I leave you with two somewhat contradictory quotes from Winston Churchill:
“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute talk with the average voter.”
“Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”