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.