Why the Public Is to Blame for the Political Mess

In trying to explain our political paralysis, analysts cite President Obama's tactical missteps, the obstinacy of congressional Republicans, rising partisanship in Washington, and the Senate filibuster, which has devolved into a super-majority threshold for important legislation. These are large factors to be sure, but that list neglects what may be the biggest culprit of all: the childishness, ignorance, and growing incoherence of the public at large.

Anybody who says you can't have it both ways hasn't been spending much time reading opinion polls lately. One year ago, 59 percent of the American public liked the economic stimulus plan, according to Gallup. A few months later, with the economy still deeply mired in recession, a majority of the same size said Obama was spending too much money on it. There's nothing wrong with changing your mind, of course, but polls reflect something more troubling: a country that simultaneously demands and rejects action on unemployment, deficits, health care, and other problems.

At the root of this contradiction is our national-characterological ambivalence about government. We want Washington and the states to fix our problems. At the same time, we want government to shrink, spend less, and reduce our taxes. We dislike government in the abstract: 67 percent of people favor balancing the budget even when the country is in a recession or a war, according to CNN. But we love government in the particular: even larger majorities oppose the kind of spending cuts that would reduce projected deficits, let alone eliminate them. Nearly half the public wants to cancel Obama's stimulus spending, and a strong majority doesn't want another round of it. But 80-plus percent of people want to extend unemployment benefits and put more money into building roads. Another term for that is stimulus spending.

Some say that the public is in an angry, populist, tea-partying mood. But a lot more people are watching American Idol than Glenn Beck, and our collective illogic is mostly passive rather than militant. The better explanation is that the public lives in Candyland, where government can tackle the big problems and get out of the way at the same time. In this respect, the whole country is becoming more and more like California, where the state's bonds have dropped to an A- rating (the same level as Libya's) thanks to a referendum system that allows the people to be even more irresponsible than their elected representatives. We like the idea of sacrifices and hard choices in theory. When was the last time we made one?

The politicians thriving at the moment are those best able to call for the impossible with a straight face. Take Scott Brown, the newly elected senator from Massachusetts. Brown wants government to take in less revenue, has signed a no-new-taxes pledge, and called for an across-the-board tax cut on families and businesses. But Brown doesn't want government to spend less money: he opposes spending cuts of any significance. He says we can lower huge deficits (which his policies would increase) simply by cutting government waste. No sensible person who has spent five minutes looking at the budget thinks that's remotely possible. The charitable interpretation is that Brown embodies the naive optimism of Ronald Reagan. A better explanation is that he is consciously pandering to the public's illusions along with the rest of his Republican colleagues.

I don't mean to suggest that honesty vs. dishonesty is what divides the two parties. Increasingly, the crucial distinction is between the minority of serious politicians on either side who are prepared to speak frankly about our choices and the majority who indulge the public's delusions. I would put President Obama and his economic team in the first category, along with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Republicans are more indulgent of the public's unrealism in general, but Democrats have spent years fostering their own kinds of denial. Where Republicans encourage myths about taxes, spending, and climate change, Democrats tend to stoke our fantasies about the sustainability of entitlement spending and the cost of social programs.

Our inability to address long-term challenges makes a strong case that the United States now faces an era of historical decline. To change this story-line, we need to stop blaming the rascals we elect to office, and look instead to ourselves.

Weisberg is chairman of the Slate Group and author of The Bush Tragedy.