It’s always interesting to watch the disconnect between conversations on the Sunday morning public-affairs programs and the nightly cable-news talk shows with journalists and politicians and activists getting worked into a frenzy over an issue or event that the public doesn’t have strong feelings about.
Sometimes, the elites may be ahead of the conversation and public opinion will follow. At other times, the pols and the talking heads get worked up over things they assume voters are agitating about, when in reality voters are either conflicted or apathetic.
Some seem to think that issues are binary, that there are no gradations or ambivalence.
These days it seems to be about the U.S. military’s role in Libya and the fight between Republican governors and public-employee unions. Average voters seem fairly disengaged on both topics, yet you would never know that tuning into the daily diet of political talk shows.
On Libya, what is driving the debate is a combination of those on the left who are often against U.S. military action, isolationists on the right, and some Republicans who are poised to oppose President Obama no matter what he does.
Worthy of note is former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s pirouette on U.S. participation in a “no-fly” zone over Libya. Gingrich was in favor of that policy until Obama embraced it. No wonder Americans have become cynical about politicians.
Yet a Gallup poll taken among 1,010 adults on March 21 showed 47 percent approving of the current military actions, 37 percent disapproving, and 16 percent having no opinion. That poll had a 4-point error margin.
Keep in mind that the poll was conducted before the United States handed control of the operation to NATO. It was also conducted before the rebels made significant advances, likely removing the need for any U.S. ground operations.
One who is watching the cable food fights would never know that just 37 percent were opposed and that 63 percent were either in approval or ambivalent about U.S. policy.
While journalists and politicians are busily parsing every word spoken by Obama, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to look for contradictions and inconsistencies, Americans have some degree of knowledge and familiarity with Libyan strongman Muammar el-Qaddafi.
Some Americans might even remember Libya’s role in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988 and don’t particularly mind the United States driving him out so long as it doesn’t involve U.S. ground forces.
They aren’t busy looking at every word Gates and Clinton said on NBC’s Meet the Press, and they are likely taking note that this was part of a legitimate multinational operation and are probably pleased to see it working.
Most importantly, this isn’t dominating their every waking thought to the extent that one might guess watching television and reading op-ed columns.
In terms of the fights between the public-employee unions and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and other Republican governors, there seems to be little public engagement outside of Wisconsin and beyond the participants and sympathizers on both sides. Democratic voters and liberals can be reliably depended upon to be sympathetic with the public-sector workers, while Republicans and conservatives are just as supportive of those Republican governors and legislators. For moderates and independents in the middle, there seem to be more conflicted emotions.
On the one hand, while federal taxes have gone down over the last decade, state and local taxes in most jurisdictions have risen, in some cases rather substantially.
There is a strong desire for belt-tightening, as well as signs that some private-sector workers—who have suffered mightily during the economic downturn and see a privileged class of workers who have job security and are insulated from the pain and sacrifices of those who don’t work for government—resent those in the public sector.
There is no doubt that Walker and other GOP governors and their supporters saw data showing fertile political territory.
But at the same time, the public does seem to be strongly supportive of collective bargaining for public employees, an area that might be a political bridge too far for Walker and others.
Independent voters seem to be cross-pressured. On one hand, they might be thinking that public employees need to sacrifice as private-sector workers have, and state and local governments need to get their finances on sounder footing.
On the other hand, they also see certain Republican office-holders as going too far in infringing on the collective-bargaining rights of public workers.
Libya and Wisconsin are good examples of political professionals and the public having vastly different priorities.
Just because the topics dominate the political food fights doesn’t mean they engage the bulk of Americans who don’t live and breathe politics. Inside the Beltway is not just a geographic place; it’s a state of mind that exists wherever one lives or works.
This article appears in the March 29, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.