Whenever a poll comes out finding that distrust of government is soaring, it tends to be taken as proof that the conservative narrative is carrying the day. But the problem with such polls is that they don’t tell us why distrust of government is on the rise — and some of the reasons for it might actually support the liberal narrative, not the conservative one.
For instance: What if distrust of government is running so high partly because Congress is failing to pass job creation policies, including tax increases on the rich, that have broad public support, and has prioritized the deficit for months when Americans want the top priority to be unemployment? If so, it’s hard to see how this supports the conservative storyline.
National Journal has now released a fascinating new poll that sheds new light on this possibility: It finds solid support for Democratic ideas on the economy but also high public pessimism that those ideas will be implemented. Solid majorities want Congress to pass new federal spending on infrastructure and schools; deficit reduction through a combination of tax increases on the rich and spending cuts; and new legislation to make mortgage refinancing easier. By contrast, only minorities favor deficit reduction with just cuts to federal programs, including entitlements.
But here’s the real rub. Only 27 percent think infrastructure spending will ... actually happen. Only 37 percent think deficit reduction through spending cuts and tax hikes will ... actually happen. Only 39 percent think legislation to make mortage refinancing easier will ... actually happen.
The problem here is an age-old one: When people are asked about generalities — do you favor spending cuts, do you think government can create jobs, do you think the deficit is a big problem — they tend to endorse the conservative economic worldview. But when people are asked about specific spending cuts, they recoil, and when people are asked about specific Democratic policy ideas, they support them. And yet, people look at Congress and see it failing to pass the economic policies they want — even as Congress is mulling cuts to popular programs. Could the failure to act on national priorities have something to do with rising distrust of government?
No question: On balance, it probably benefits Republicans and conseratives politically in the short term when people see government failing them — they are tempted to conclude to government will never succeed in creating jobs. But perhaps they don’t conclude this because they think it's impossible for jobs policies to work. Rather, they may simply conclude that Congress won’t ever pass them, and are tempted to throw their lot in with the private sector instead. Bottom line: Public opinion on these big questions is complex, contradictory and in constant flux. And the fact that people are pessimistic about government after seeing it fail to pass job creation policies they support hardly seems like proof that the conservative worldview is winning the day.
UPDATE: It’s true that the poll asked people if they think these policies will be implemented “by the end of the year,” and I’ve slightly edited the post to take that into account, but it seems safe to assume that this is a good gauge of pessimism that they’ll happen at all.