Does this drive you crazy too? You are watching C-SPAN or the news or something else and you see John Boehner’s rusty mug saying, “The American people do not want higher taxes!” If you’re like me, you scream at the TV machine, “What the fuck would you know about what the American people want?” Okay; you’re not like me; you don’t yell at the TV. But surly you think this (perhaps without the expletive). For one thing, the “American people” is not a monolithic thing. For another, we know what most American people think on this issue because we’ve asked them. They don’t want their taxes increased, but overwhelmingly they think the rich do not pay enough in taxes and would like to see them pay more.
There are two ways to look at these kinds of statements from conservative politicians. It could be that they are just lying. They do combine politician (mendacity) and conservative (willfully ignorant) into one big deception singularity. Or it could be that they actually believe what they are saying. As it turns out, there are data that indicates that this is the case.
Dylan Matthews presented research by two economics graduate students that compares the opinions of legislator’s constituencies to what the legislator thinks they are. You will be shocked by the results, I’m sure! It turns out that Democrats and Republicans alike think that their constituencies are a whole lot more conservative than they actually are. On average, Republicans overestimate how conservative their constituencies are by 20%. What does that mean specifically? It means that the average Republican state legislator thinks his constituency is more conservative than the most conservative district in the United States. Got that? Republicans think the people they represent are more conservative than the most conservative constituency in the country!
What is even worse: Democrats also systematically overestimate how conservative their constituencies are. Depending on the issue, Democrats overstate this by 5% to 10%. In other words: they still overstate this by a lot. And this explains why it is that a popular idea like single payer healthcare is considered a nonstarter by political elites. It is also why Democrats have long thought that gun control was a losing issue for them. It doesn’t make any sense. Everyone could see that regardless of how pro-gun democrats got, they never got credit for it. For various reasons, almost none of which have to do with gun control, gun lovers will always tilt toward the Republican Party. So now Democrats have learned that while the NRA isn’t going to help them get elected, they also aren’t going to hurt them.
I don’t know what we can do about this disconnect between what politicians think and what the people think. But I have some ideas. Obviously, part of the solution is to get money out of politics. Whether they are consciously aware of it or not, most politicians have their ideas about what “the people” want altered by the very clear signals of what corporations want. Another part of the solution is just getting the information out: politicians need to be told that their views are skewed. And as always, the biggest part of the solution is voter turnout. If we just get out and vote, we will get more and more politicians who are more and more liberal.
Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth!