West Wing Why Americans Never Vote for What They Really Want

American voters are a contradictory bunch: They say they want social welfare, but don't want to pay for it. They claim they are left-leaning, but vote for center-right candidates. Only candidates who can appeal to both sides stand a chance.
Von Gabor Steingart
Now do I want social welfare or low taxes?

Now do I want social welfare or low taxes?


It's still three weeks until the next Democratic primary in the US presidential election season, in Pennsylvania. Political observers can pass the time until then in two ways.

One option is to listen to the candidates and their advisors malign each other. When it comes to name-calling, the worst labels that have been tossed around to date have been "monster" (an epithet that was applied to Hillary Clinton) and "Judas" (the word that was used to describe Bill Richardson, who was appointed US ambassador to the United Nations by Bill Clinton but who endorsed Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination). As spring temperatures rise, the level of civility is apparently falling.

The second option is to listen to the people, to the way they express their views through the lens of opinion polls. In recent weeks, tens of thousands of US citizens of both genders and of all races, age groups and income classes have been polled to gauge their mood and political preferences.

The results say that America is divided, but not just into North and South, black and white, poor and rich. The two Americas appearing on the pollsters' radar screens coexist in the political brain of every voter. The findings are clear: the desires of American citizens contradict their fundamental convictions.

The overwhelming majority of Americans are troubled by the social injustices in their country. They dream of a nation in which bridges do not collapse and with a school system in which drug dealers are not the main authority figures. No one doubts that, politically at least, they want to see these shortcomings corrected.

Piggy Bank Eyes

And yet these very same voters are not allowing politicians to fulfill their wishes.

When it comes to putting these ideas into practice, Americans quickly drop their idealistic gazes. Their eyes begin to narrow until they resemble the slits in a piggy bank.

The unanimous response among Americans, when it comes to tax policy, can be summed up in four words: Not a cent more! Although a majority of Americans generally reject President George W. Bush's fiscal policies, they only do so when the question is phrased very broadly. His tax cut policies, in particular, are widely welcomed.

Should these tax cuts, which have meant additional billions for some taxpayers, especially the wealthy, be made permanent? 'Yes!' say a clear majority of poll respondents. Should they be followed by additional cuts? 'Absolutely!' say voters. Is it best for the US economy if these tax cuts include everyone, or just those with moderate to low incomes? 'Tax cuts for everyone!' say a respectable 30 percent of respondents.

Voters come up with the same schizophrenic responses when asked about the Iraq war. The majority believes that the invasion of Iraq was a mistake, but that the United States is a safer place today than it was then. The majority of citizens favors withdrawal, but is convinced, or at least considers it likely, that the United States will still win the war first.

Multiple Personality Disorder

The US electorate apparently suffers from the condition psychologists and psychiatrists call multiple personality disorder. According to the textbook definition, "patients create many different personalities, which alternate in taking control over their behavior."

This type of citizen presents a difficult challenge for the political parties. First he wants everything, and then he wants precisely the opposite. It cannot be ruled out that he will spend an entire election campaign feeling a deep affinity for the idealist and former community organizer Barack Obama, only to turn around and pick Republican candidate and Vietnam veteran John McCain on election day. Sometimes people simply vote differently from how they feel.

If the Democrats are the party of desires, the Republicans seek to paint themselves as the party of principles. A speaker at a large conservative event recently said that when he buys his son a Coca-Cola, he doesn't want to examine the list of ingredients first. A Coke is a Coke, the speaker said, and that is something Americans must be able to depend upon.

Anyone who votes Republican, he continued, must be able to rely on the tax burden becoming smaller. "For Republicans like us," he said, "a tax increase is like a rat's head in a Coke."

John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, has already drawn his conclusions and now supports a policy of tax cuts that he once opposed. Although he says he has compassion for the victims of the real estate crisis, he reminds homeowners at the same time of their responsibilities. Of America's 80 million homeowners, says McCain, 50 million would take second jobs, forego their vacations and manage their spending more effectively so that they could make their mortgage payments on time. His message resonates, albeit not among the afflicted.

No Chance for the Hard-Core

But the truth is that McCain is talking about 4 million mortgages that were defaulted on over the course of the real estate crisis. Conversely, 76 million of America's 80 million homeowners are in a relatively solid financial position.

Forty-seven million Americans have no health insurance. On the flipside, 250 million are insured -- albeit poorly, in many cases.

What a sharp contrast with the European way of thinking. When the government announces new benefits for citizens, the typical European thinks: "I'm getting something new." But the average American thinks: "It's going to cost me something."

Seventeen percent of Americans consider themselves to belong to the 1 percent of American society deemed rich.

One would think that voters would eventually have to make a decision, at least by election day. But even that isn't quite true. Although Americans will elect only one candidate, they will want it to be the one who embodies both personalities. Ideally, the winning candidate will combine idealism and fundamental conviction, which is why the warm-hearted idealist's prospects are as slim as those of the hard-core, right-wing ideologue.

Contented Extremists

This explains why campaign advisors always make sure that their respective presidential candidates are ready to use soft words and reach out to the other side. In his election campaign, George W. Bush painted himself as a "compassionate conservative," while his predecessor in the White House, Bill Clinton, claimed that he was a "new Democrat."

This is not to say that all US voters have multiple personality disorder. According to a recently published study on the mood of the nation by Arthur Brooks, desires and basic convictions are completely in sync at the left and right extremes of the political spectrum. But nowhere else in the political orbit, according to the study, are voters so at peace with themselves.

Those on the left have expensive wishes and no qualms about calling for a strong government. Meanwhile, those on the right want more personal freedom and desire nothing more deeply than a government that fades into the background.

Both fringe groups live in harmony with themselves, because there are no contradictions between the means and the end. They are not plagued by self-doubt.

Extremists, it appears, are happier.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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