A recent article by Sarah Kliff, the WONKBLOG contributor to the Washington Post, identified what at first seemed to be a quirky and amusing result of a recent Public Policy Polling ... poll. Nearly 40% of the poll's respondents had an opinion of the Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction plan and 25% of respondents had an opinion of the Panetta-Burns deficit-reduction plan. The former plan is real, the latter ... not so much.
The "Panetta-Burns" debt plan was a ruse; the pollsters were seeking to determine if respondents would express an opinion in favor or disapproval of an imaginary debt-reduction plan. The pollsters and Sarah Kliff did not offer any conclusions for this insight. This article is my attempt to offer a conclusion: The American public, not Congress, deserves more blame for the country's current and projected fiscal and political woes.
Why would someone express an opinion on an imaginary solution? They didn't know it was fake. So why would someone express an opinion in favor or disapproval of an issue which they had no knowledge of? Most oftentimes, people like to hear themselves speak and seek to impress their friends and family. This is what laymen refer to as "bull-shitting." But the poll didn't allow respondents to impress anyone. Far from it. If we assume that the 25% of respondents who expressed an opinion of the Panetta-Burns debt plan did so honestly, then the conclusion we must recognize is troubling: political debates trigger automatic, unquestionable, illogical responses from the public ... at least 25% of the public. Does that trigger mechanism sound familiar?
For all intents an purposes, politics in the United States is characterized by undertones of faith. Public policy in the U.S. is treated more as a religious discipline than a political one and "We The People" are to blame for the mess we find ourselves in.
Critical thinking has been absent from public discourse for some time now, but until recently this tendency towards a herd-mentality has only affected our responses to events outside of the United States. A quick, simplified narrative will explain.
The presidential elections of 1854 and 1860 laid the foundations for the competition between two, broadly popular political parties: the Republicans and Democrats. While the Democrats had been more or less a cohesive unit since 1824, the Republican Party, or GOP, was a collection of Conscious Whigs, Free Soilers, and abolitionists, cobbled together in opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Missouri Compromise. From 1860 onwards, these two parties would compete with one another for congressional seats and presidential elections, albeit both had fluid ideological platforms.
Skip ahead to the end of World War II. Imperialist Japan and Fascist Germany were both defeated by August of 1945 and an international conflict had ended, the proportions and dynamics of which could be comprehended by Americans. But as Stalin's "Iron Curtain" fell over Eastern Europe, threatening war in central Europe between the U.S. and Soviet Union, a steady eruption of events took place from 1950-91 that would baffle the American public. This is a crucial point: each and every conflict, the Cuban Missile Crises notwithstanding, was far away enough, and abstract enough, to force ordinary Americans to defer their judgement and opinions to politicians. This worked insofar that both the Democrats and Republicans shared the same, over-arching strategy for defeating the Communists, albeit with periodic changes to strategy which both parties accepted.
We can broadly group together these conflicts into military, economic, and diplomatic categories. The Korean and Vietnam wars first called for direct military efforts to roll-back communist threats along the periphery of Eurasia. Both wars enjoyed initial support from the U.S. public if for no other reason than the simplified logic of halting Communists gains. The Korean conflict was lost to history, and the Vietnam War generated substantial opposition at home because the U.S. public miraculously began to question the importance of fighting a war in South East Asia which cost the country tens of thousands of lives. However, both conflicts were supported through public deference to "The Best and the Brightest" of the Washington, D.C., elite.
The next international development was militaristic, but the U.S. public was effected in a serious, economical way. The 1973 Arab-Israeli Yom Kippur War saw initial success for the Egyptians and Syrians against Israel. However, direct assistance to the Israelis from the U.S. government prompted the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to freeze oil shipments, causing a panic in the crude oil market sending prices sky-high. I wasn't alive at the time, but have seen YouTube videos of the long lines at U.S. gas stations. Again, the U.S. public, unable to critically think about international conflict, led to deference to politicians to fix the issue.
Next to shake the international Richter scale were the explosive events emanating from Iran and its proxies from 1979-86. The '79 Islamic clerical revolution overthrew a U.S. puppet in Iran. This was the culmination of a long history of relations between the U.S., Great Britain, and Iran, too complex and confusing to explain here, but Earth-shattering nonetheless. The revolution, '79-'81 hostage crisis, Beirut U.S. and French military barracks attacks, and the '85-'86 Iran-Contra Affair, took place one after another and converged into a maelstrom so violent and complex that the U.S. public nearly combusted. The conflicts were so foreign and abstract to the public that it was difficult for ordinary Americans to offer even a simplified opinion of the issues, especially the Contra Affair.
Finally, after the Berlin Wall fell in 1990 the U.S. stood pre-eminent on the world stage. A quick war with Saddam was launched and wrapped up in seven months and the U.S. public stood awestruck, marveling at its position at the top of the international food-chain and yet completely clueless as to how it had gotten there as a result of fifty years of unquestionable, illogical deference to Congress and the President. For fifty 50 years the U.S. public had looked to the U.S. government as the Messiah; a prophet claiming to deliver the political Gospel. What the public failed to recognize — and indeed still fails to recognize — is that the politicians and Presidents have carefully defined and framed issues in order to incite the public into action. Before you blame the politicians, however, carefully consider the sage words of Ice-T: "Don't hate the player, hate the game." For years and counting, the U.S. public has relied on blind faith to inform its opinions; politics is religion in the U.S.
The recent public policy poll and Sarah Kraff's article are only a recognition of public apathy in the U.S. Most voters are a paradox: Libertarians when it comes to government intervention, but socialistically addicted to the benefits a large, active government delivers to them. The only dividing line between Democrats and Republicans is a broken, two-party electoral system which offers a dazzling array of platforms to voters who are oftentimes only concerned with one or two major issues. And yet, the American public feeds into this system by, again paradoxically, failing to educate itself in politics. Politics is such a dirty word.
The public refuses to ask itself: How do I define my relationship with my government? What are the facts of this or that issue? Where in the world is Afghanistan on this map?
Face it America: the politicians misbehave because we let them.