America, we are told, is angry. We see it in the Tea Party movement and in the unexpected retirement of Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., a sign that even those who've been steeped in D.C. culture are fed up with the place.
A CNN poll released this past weekend tells us that 86 percent of Americans think that government is broken. It's just a matter of time before we see an infomercial advertising do-it-yourself guides for overthrowing government.
In times of great stress and anxiety, voters demand more of their elected officials, not less.
But before you go investing in torches and pitchforks, it's important to differentiate between frustration with the way government is working (or, more accurately, not working) and a desire for government to get out of the way. Just because voters aren't happy with government doesn't mean that they don't want government to play a role in their lives. Instead, views of Washington are just as polarized as Washington itself.
A Pew poll taken early this month, for example, showed voters split on the question of whether government should exert more control over the economy. Forty-six percent thought it was a good idea, while 42 percent thought it was a bad idea. Among Republicans, just 29 percent thought more control was a good idea, while 62 percent of Democrats wanted to see more government influence on the economy. Independents were evenly divided at 45 percent.
Last month's Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll has fascinating insight into this partisan divide as well. Just 35 percent of voters agreed with the statement that "government is not the solution to our economic problems: government is the problem." Of that group, 39 percent identified as Republicans (compared to 25 percent of the overall sample), and 82 percent where white. Just 13 percent of African-Americans and 17 percent of Hispanics felt this way.
Another 29 percent agreed with the statement, "government must play an active role in regulating the marketplace and ensuring that the economy benefits people like me." This group was heavily Democratic (50 percent) and 36 percent minority (compared to 26 percent of the total sample). Meanwhile, another 33 percent said they would like the government to "play an active role in the economy" but they aren't sure that they can "trust government to do this effectively."
In other words, two-thirds of voters would like to see government play an active role in the economy. However, half of those voters aren't convinced that government is equipped to do so competently. This means that voters aren't dismissing the importance of government in their lives. What they are saying is that they want government to do a better job.
Even while the support for the stimulus program continues to drop, voters in the Pew poll remain evenly divided at 47 percent about whether government should spend more money or focus on reducing the deficit. Among independents, 51 percent wanted to see increased spending while 42 percent wanted to see a focus on deficit reduction.
For Republicans who are hoping to benefit from frustration of government, beware. Voters are just as wary, if not more, of the private sector. The Allstate/National Journal Heartland poll showed voters more willing to trust "elected officials in Washington" to "manage the financial risks" they face than "major corporations or national banks." Just 35 percent of those polled said that they had "some" trust in major corporations, while 43 percent said the same about banks. Elected officials hit 45 percent.
In times of great stress and anxiety, voters demand more of their elected officials, not less. What they are tired of isn't government, but excuses and finger-pointing. Democrats won elections in 2006 and 2008 simply because they weren't the folks in power. Republicans will be able to pick up seats this year based on the same formula. But a majority is only as enduring as the results it can deliver. This requires a focus less on winning the majority and more about figuring out what to do once you're there.