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Saturday, June 3, 2023
June 3, 2023

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Jayne: Dislike those in government? Then stop electing them

By , Columbian Opinion Page Editor

The problem, apparently, is cognitive dissonance. Sure, we have concerns about terrorism and the economy and health care, but when it comes to this country’s inability to tackle problems, the real issue is our inability to think straight.

That is the condensed summary of the latest poll from the Pew Research Center. The good people at Pew recently unveiled a survey that found just 19 percent of Americans trust the federal government to do what is right all the time or most of the time.

Nothing wrong with that. Goodness knows, government at every level has plenty of dunderheads trying to run things — just like any other organization. And yet, as Joel Mathis of Philadelphia Magazine writes, “Americans may not trust their government, but they sure want it to do a lot of stuff. And a lot of the stuff they want government to do, they think it does well. Dive deeper into the Pew survey and you’ll see that healthy majorities of Americans polled see an expansive role for government in American life.”

You know, a role in responding to natural disasters, or setting standards for the workplace, or ensuring safe food and medicine. Polls show that the American public overwhelmingly wants the federal government to be involved in these things, and the public gives that government high marks for how it manages them.

Or take government at the local level. Have you visited a park lately? Had your garbage picked up? Taken water from the tap? All of those civilized comforts are the result of a government that has managed to keep things running smoothly.

I know, I know, it’s part of the American DNA to complain about government. And I also know that different individuals might distrust government for vastly different reasons. Yet that brings up the most disturbing finding of the Pew survey. As Samantha Smith wrote in the organization’s summary of its results: “When asked if elected officials or ordinary Americans could do a better job of solving the nation’s problems, 55 percent say ordinary Americans could do better.”

To which the appropriate reaction is something along the lines of a spit-take followed by a “Huh?” The average American really thinks their plumber or their barber or their friendly local newspaper columnist could do a better job of dealing with Syria? I rode in a taxi once with a driver who seemed to have all the answers to all the world’s problems; that doesn’t mean I would vote for him.

Voters can do better

All of which brings us to the issue of cognitive dissonance. You see, while people say they are dissatisfied with government, they keep voting for the politicians they think are doing a worse job than the CPA down the street would. In the 2014 midterm elections, about 95 percent of congressional members who sought re-election were rewarded with a return trip to Washington, D.C. In 2012, Barack Obama won re-election by 5 million votes and with 62 percent of the electoral vote.

So maybe we really don’t abhor government as much as we like to pretend. As Ben Boychuk of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal writes: “We don’t think government is particularly competent, except when we do.”

That is why politics are so confounding these days, an age in which intellectual curiosity has given way to partisan demagoguery. So many people on both halves of the political spectrum live in an echo chamber of their own beliefs — what the Pew Research Center refers to as “ideological silos” — that any quest for compromise is drowned out by demands for ideological purity.

Because of that, we have moved beyond mere dissatisfaction with government and into the realm of actual anger. Pew found that while 57 percent of respondents are frustrated with the federal government, 22 percent identify themselves as angry with it.

Angry? Really? Because officials who likely will get re-elected keep doing the things that got them elected in the first place? Sounds more like cognitive dissonance on the part of the voters.