It is easy to blame voters for their ignorance or idiocy. Indeed, one striking pattern I find in listening to Americans talk about their fellow citizens is that so many are convinced that most Americans are gullible idiots. These critics, abundant on the left, right and center, usually see themselves, and those who agree with them, as immune from the rampant plague of idiocy. There is, indeed, plenty of evidence that most Americans — no doubt including many of those convinced that they are smart and most everyone else is an idiot — have a quite limited grasp of political facts.
Meanwhile though, evidence shows that politicians and activists are becoming more strident and less open to compromise, while ever-growing numbers of Americans are eschewing political parties in favor of independence. The combination is toxic. Many Americans believe that strong partisan voters are more ignorant and gullible, but as political scholars know, the evidence shows the opposite: The growing numbers of independents and tepid partisans tend to be less informed and more susceptible to manipulation than strong partisans.
So we face a public increasingly independent — that is, politically disillusioned and disconnected, not so much informed or attentive. And accordingly, a public that is increasingly susceptible to the often-hysterical propaganda of partisan politicians and activists who foresee catastrophe if they don't get their way.
There are saner ways of practicing politics, but commercial media don't cover saner politicians and activists as readily because they don't shout or shoot.
Not all politicians and activists are zealots. Indeed, there is a burgeoning movement for deliberative democracy led by wiser activists, politicians and scholars that advances a different kind of politics, one in which citizens listen, read, communicate and compromise.
Most people are capable of such citizenship, but it doesn't develop merely through exhortation. Any citizenship lives through institutions. For better or worse, the laws and norms of elections, parties, government and other political institutions define the kinds of citizens we become and the politicians we elect.
Will we develop more deliberative institutions, or stay on our path to more crises, anger and disillusionment?
Obama no doubt believed that the stimulus would hold down unemployment, that people would come to love his health care policies, and that he’d be cruising to reelection on the crest of these measures, instead of hoping that people forget all about them and changing the subject to anything else. Ours is a system that does not reward failure. It has tools known as the “midterm elections” and the “two-party system” built in as brakes on unpopular programs, not to mention long-term and multi-year plans for creative destruction, which may work out in the minds of deranged academics but never take hold in a working democracy.
Sabotage fantasies may be seductive at moments, but sometimes the simplest answers are really the best ones, and things really are as they seem. Obama pushes big government policies because he believes they are good for the country, and Republicans fight him because they think otherwise. That, in a nutshell, is all there is to it. Finish of story. The end.
But this is seldom the end for numerous people who have the will and the need to believe the worst of their opponents. Some think their beliefs are so true and self-evident that principled and/or informed opposition to them is simply impossible, and that their opponents must be fools and/or villains. They also feel themselves under permanent siege, from the press, from the establishment, and most of all from the centrists in their parties, who work day and night to frustrate their efforts and keep them from the positions of permanent power they would be sure to have otherwise, and know and believe they deserve.