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Polls, Politics, and Prioritizing Our Problems

All that “tranquility of the global community” the White House spokesman was recently boasting about dominated Thursday’s news, what with Israeli ground troops entering Gaza and a jet from the ill-fated Malaysian Airlines being shot down over Russian-occupied Ukraine, so it would have been easy to overlook an intriguing Gallup poll about what worries Americans most. The litany’s top top five doesn’t include the deteriorating international order, which should come as a relief to that insouciant White House spokesman, but neither does it include any good news for the Democrats.
Topping the list of most important problems is “immigration/illegal aliens,” which has shot up the charts since the recent invasion by unaccompanied minors from Central America, and the racist xenophobes of the Republican party are likely beneficiaries of the public’s concern. The Democrats and their media allies will have a hard time convincing anyone that the Republicans’ racism and xenophobia are what’s drawing tens of thousands of expensive illegal youngsters to the country, rather than the Democrats’ more compassionate and caring policy of holding out hope of amnesty and free stuff, and other polls indicate that most Americans are more inclined to the racist and xenophobic option of returning the invaders to their homelands.
Coming in a close second is the hodgepodge of “Dissatisfaction with government, Congress, politicians, poor leadership, corruption, Abuse of Power,” which is at least open to hopeful interpretations. The White House will prefer to read this as a righteous anger against those obstructionist Republicans in Congress who stubbornly refuse to rubber stamp the president’s agenda, but we expect that many respondents had in mind the Internal Revenue Service and Veterans Administration and National Security Agency scandals and any number of other problems that have more to do with the executive branch. Much of that dissatisfaction with Congress is caused by the Democrat-controlled Senate, too, and the Republicans in the other chamber don’t seem to have much power to abuse.
The “economy in general” comes in second and “unemployment, jobs” in third, and a sensible combination of these two would have probably come in first. The Democrats will argue that these problems could have been easily solved if only those darned Republicans had allowed them to rack up the national debt by a few more billion and add another million or so pages of regulations for the understaffed compliances offices of America’s corporations to comply with, but the Republicans should be able to get a few votes and a lot of laughs out of that.
“Poor healthcare, hospitals, high cost of health care” comes in fourth on the list, so the Republicans will have a head start on convincing the American public that Obamacare hasn’t solved all that. Despite an almost complete absence of news coverage, “federal budget deficit, federal” debt comes in at a surprisingly strong fifth place. The Democrats will boast that they’ve cut those deficits to less than the recent trillion dollar highs, even as they lambaste the Republicans for their stingy ways, but this far the public is not reassured. “Education, poor education, access” to education are the public’s sixth most pressing problem, and the teachers unions will need to spend a lot of dues money to convince any voters that they just need more funding and continued tenure and that federalized Common Core Curriculum to make things right at school. “Ethics, moral, religious, family decline” comes in eighth, and the party that would compel nuns to purchase contraceptives is not likely to appeal the people with those worries.
Democrats can take some hope in noting that “Poverty, hunger, homelessness” came in ninth, as these are the party’s traditional causes, but they’ll have to hope that nobody notices there’s more of all of them after six years of a Democratic presidency. It’s also good news for the Democrats that “foreign aid, focus overseas” barely made the top ten.
What’s missing from the top ten is also a problem for the Democrats. Only one percent of the poll’s respondents cited “race relations and racism” as the nation’s most pressing problem, and it’s probably a similar number who will take seriously the notion that racism is the sole reason for any dissatisfaction with the president. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision doesn’t rate any mention, even though it’s a staple of Democratic fund-raising and the Senate Democrats regard it as such a crisis that the First Amendment needs amending as a result. The Hobby Lobby decision is also unmentioned by any of the respondents, even though the Democrats are raising even more money with claims that it’s the first step toward the Republicans’ nefarious plot to subjugate women to bare feet and pregnancy. The even more nefarious plot by to Koch Brothers to do God only knows what was also overlooked, although that can cited by the fund-raising Democrats as further proof of how very ingeniously wicked is the conspiracy. We also note that income inequality and global warming and transgendered rights and all the other issues that seem to excite a certain sort of Democrat are not high on the list of what the general public is worried about.
We don’t have much regard for the general public, but is heartening to see that they have more sensible priorities than a certain sort of Democrat.

— Bud Norman

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Cell Phone Libertarianism

Our faith in the American public has been slightly bolstered by the eight-point drop President Barack Obama has suffered in the latest monthly Gallup poll, although his approval rating remains an unaccountably high 45 percent, and we are particularly heartened to note that the decline is driven largely by a precipitous 17-point drop in the approval of the young folks.
The under-30 cohort’s enthusiasm for Obama has been remarkably stubborn, especially by the dizzying standards of contemporary pop culture crazes, but it is not hard to see why the young generation’s forbearance has at last waned in the past month. All of the most damning facts about the deadly Benghazi fiasco were well known by the time of the election, and the incompetence and dishonesty and disdain for free speech rights apparently made no impression. The revelation of the Internal Revenue Services’ campaign of harassment to stomp out the Tea Party’s dissent was similarly unmoving, as the Tea Party was just a bunch of middle class white people who didn’t want to pay for the young generation’s health care and Obamaphones. News that the Justice Department had treated a Fox News investigation as a criminal conspiracy also failed to trouble the young generation’s conscience, and for some it was a welcome development to have those buzz-kills get pushed around, and the fact that it was also happening to the Associated Press made little impression on people who get their news through Facebook and rarely read newspapers. Even the persistently high youth unemployment rate didn’t seem to faze the young. When word got out that the National Security Agency was snooping through Facebook and cell phone records, though, that was crossing a generational Rubicon.
If you are ever so unfortunate as to find yourself in one of the nightspots favored by the young folks, you’ll immediately note the strange regard they have for their cell phones and tablets and other electronic gizmos. They’ll contantly caress these damnable devices in the palms of their hands, enrapt by the faint light of the high-resolution screens, texting shorthand witticisms to their most beloved hundred or so friends, “googling” the answer to some trivia question about a Saturday morning cartoon from their childhoods, buying over-priced tickets to some second-rate rock ‘n’ roll band’s concert, or God and the National Security Agency only knows what else. Whatever it is that they’re doing on those things seems to be more important than flirting with the nubile and needy-looking young hipster chicks sitting across the booth, and the latest Gallup poll suggests that young folks don’t seem to believe it’s any of the government’s business.
Some conservatives are hoping that this understandable outrage suggests a libertarian streak that the Republican party might appeal to in future elections, but our experience of young people suggests this is wishful thinking. The young people of our acquaintance are mostly inclined to hold very permissive social views on issues ranging from abortion to same-sex marriage to the right to post photos of their cats on Facebook or “tweet” a misspelling of an obscenity, but they do not embrace the red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalism and rugged individualism that define libertarianism. They certainly don’t subscribe to the notions of individual responsibility that are just as essential to the libertarian ethic, and they’ve never stopped to consider how economic freedom is essential to social freedom, so they much prefer the goodies provided by an ever-bigger government.
So long as the government can keep the goodies coming, especially during a period of persistently high youth unemployment, the young folks will likely be satisfied with some assurance that the government isn’t keeping a record of their most embarrassing internet searches or awkward post-hook up phone chats. Obama has taken to the airwaves to offer his word that he isn’t Dick Cheney, even as Dick Cheney is taking to the airwaves to defend Obama’s policies, and that might placate the youngsters for a while. Using Dick Cheney as a slur is so five years ago, though, and perhaps the young have grown tired of it. Many of them, we suspect, won’t recognize the reference at all. If the sweet talk to the youngsters doesn’t work, they might even start to notice the persistently high unemployment rates for the young, but unless the Republicans are offering more generous unemployment benefits it probably won’t make difference.

— Bud Norman

The Show Goes On and On

We’ve been following this “sequester” business with rapt attention, but we’re of the sort that enjoys a good farce. More normal people are apparently rather bored with the whole affair.
Or so it would seem from the latest batch of opinion surveys, which indicate a widespread weariness with the topic. A high 38 percent of respondents to the Gallup poll admitted that they are not following the story closely or at all, an even higher 48 percent made the same confession to the Pew Center, and it is likely that many of the people who claimed to be following the story closely or at least somewhat were fibbing for fear of looking foolish. To the extent that people have been paying attention, they don’t seem to be very worried, with about 40 percent telling Pew that they won’t mind seeing the budget cuts go into effect and about one-fifth being shrewd enough to offer no opinion at all.
One can hardly blame these folks for the lack of interest. After a seemingly endless series of debt ceiling debates and “fiscal cliff” controversies it is asking a bit much of the public to bone up on yet another budgetary brouhaha, especially with yet another round on the debt ceiling fight scheduled for next month, and there really isn’t anything special about this spat. Even a cursory glance at the news reveals that it’s only a matter of $44 billion, a mere nick in a $3.8 trillion budget, and no one seems to believe that even the most successful resolution of the matter would have much effect on the broader economy.
Still, those switching to another channel to avoid the “sequester” show will be unlikely to find a more hilarious comedy. Thursday’s episode alone featured enough wacky subplots to fuel the typical sit-com for a season. California’s Rep. Maxine Waters, who is always good for comic relief, warned that the budget cuts will cause 170 million Americans to lose their jobs. Homeland security honcho Janet Napolitano, another side-splitter, went on television to say that she “regretted” the “poorly timed” release of detained illegal immigrants even before the budget cuts went into effect. There was also the spectacle of the Washington press elite savaging the reputation of Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, who had been the most elite pressman in the city until he challenged the Obama administration’s self-serving version of how the whole “sequester” business got started in the first place. Adding yet another humorous twist, the President took time out from flying around the country in his $180,000-an-hour jet to warn that there is no fat to be trimmed from the budget and scheduled his first face-to-face meeting with the congressional leadership on the months-old matter just a few hours ahead of the deadline for the budget cuts to take effect. In a move that would be considered “jumping the shark” on any other sit-com, the president even set aside a full seven minutes for the meeting.
There’s no predicting where such a wacky plot will go next, but our best guess is that it’s heading toward another one of those anti-climactic finales common to budget debates and other long-running television shows. What everyone’s waiting to find out is who will get the blame, of course, and that’s more easily predicted. Over at the Washington Post some of the writers seem concerned that the aforementioned poll results show that Obama has failed to whip up the intended frenzy of fear about the budget cuts, but those same polls indicate that a slight majority of Americans are willing to place the blame on the Republicans even if nothing noticeably bad happens. That’s become a natural instinct for a slight majority of Americans, and it doesn’t require that any attention be paid.

— Bud Norman

In God We Trust, the Rest of You Not So Much

We right-wingers grouse mostly about the government, and tend to wax enthusiastic about the virtues of the private sector, but deep in our conservatives souls we know that almost every segment of our civilization is decline. A new poll from the Gallup organization, which measured how much trust Americans place in 16 important institutions, suggests that the view is widely shared.

Only the military fared especially well, with 75 percent of the respondents saying they trusted it “a great deal” or “quite a lot” and only 6 percent saying they trust it very little or not at all. The armed forces have traditionally been highly esteemed in Gallup’s annual survey, but scored an unusually high favorability rating this year. We suspect the military’s public image has lately benefited not only from its heroic efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, but also because the media tend to treat its inevitable missteps more calmly when the Commander in Chief is from the right party.

Small business enjoys a respectable approval rating of 63 percent, with only 6 percent saying they trust it little or not at all, but that likely reflects a romanticized notion of the humble mom-and-pop store. Many small businesses are lousy, of course, and in some cases the proprietors are also lousy parents, but they’re rarely portrayed as villains in the popular culture and the failings of a small business are not big news. The police are trusted a great deal by 56 percent and not trusted at all by only 16 percent, which is not bad for an institution that hands out speeding tickets, but there are almost certainly some police forces out there that are bringing down the average.

Organized religion is trusted a great deal by only 44 percent of Americans, with 26 percent saying they trust it very little or not at all. Those numbers probably overstate how secularized America has become, as the non-trusting category will include many evangelicals who regard the mainline churches as too squishy and many mainline congregants who regard the evangelicals as too rigid, but it does suggest that Americans realize that the churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples have all failed in their mission of inculcating moral behavior.

The medical system fares even worse, with only 41 percent expressing a great deal of trust, a 2 percent decline from last year, and 26 percent having little or no trust in the institution. It is not surprising that the government’s efforts at reforming the medical system have not improved its standing, given that the presidency and the Supreme Court are even less trusted, with only 37 percent having a great deal of trust in either institution, and a full 36 percent having very little or no trust in the presidency. The public schools and the criminal justice system, two institutions that are increasingly intertwined, are trusted a great deal by only 29 percent of Americans. Newspapers are trusted a great deal by a mere 25 percent of Americans, television news by 21 percent, and it’s likely that most of those are products of the public schools.

Banks and big business are trusted by only 21 percent, which is not surprising given the way they have been demonized in the pop culture for the past many decades, but organized labor is trusted by the same low number of Americans despite a sustained propaganda campaign, so it’s hard to guess who people will be rooting for in a strike. Health maintenance organizations, which we had previously assumed were part of the medical system, are trusted a great deal by only 19 percent of Americans, perhaps because there are no mom-and-pop HMOs.

Congress comes in last, as it has every year regardless of which party holds the majorities, and with both parties currently reigning in one chamber there is now something for every to distrust, but the 13 percent of respondents who have a great deal of trust is nonetheless a damning number.

All of these results suggest that Americans are a suspicious lot, perhaps even more so than is healthy, but they also indicate that many of our institutions are not very trustworthy. Reversing the country’s decline will require major changes in our government, but it will also require major changes in the broader culture, and we can’t trust the government to do that.

— Bud Norman