Public opinion about the appropriate role of the federal government moves like the moon cycle, causing tidal shifts in citizen attitudes and election outcomes. After watching Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress over the past year and a half, attitudes about Washington are changing again, possibly giving those who advocate devolving power to the states a political advantage in the midterm elections.
Political scientist James A. Stimson nailed the ocean metaphor in his insightful book, Tides of Consent: How Public Opinion Shapes American Politics. Stimson demonstrates that the overall public mood about government starts to run counter to victorious political parties soon after they win. For example, voters typically elect Democrats when a more liberal, pro-activist federal government sentiment hits an apex. But for the big government crowd, Election Day is about as good as it gets. Going forward, sentiment soon starts to shift in a more conservative direction.
Small government politicians are not immune. They win, according to Stimson, when conservative views reach a peak, but once elected, the currents shift again in the direction of big government.
The tides thesis explains a lot about today’s political events, including the outlook for the 2010 elections and voters’ views about the role of the federal government.
Stimson accurately notes that waves of change don’t impact every voter. He divides the electorate into three groups – the Passionate, the Scorekeepers and the Uninvolved. The exact size of each category, Stimson argues, is not that important, but they are practically divided equally.
But it’s the middle group – the Scorekeepers – that produce the incremental change in American politics. The Passionate stick with their respective teams – Republicans or Democrats – no matter how things go. The Uninvolved shift, but changes here are random and tend to cancel each other out. The Scorekeepers, Stimson writes, “[pay] enough attention to respond to common signals of politics, yet…[are] not so involved as to be committed always to one side. They produce all of our evidence of systematic change.”
Examples of these tidal shifts abound. A majority of Americans preferred bigger government with more services in 2008, but now support smaller government with fewer services, according to Washington Post polling.
Stimson argues these shifts “should not be understood as an emotional rejection or a ‘backlash,’ but as more mundane, saying in essence, ‘Okay, we’ve had a big change in direction. That’s enough.’” This also raises a key political question. Given the growing belief that the federal government is doing too much, would politicians advocating more state-based solutions find new pockets of support among today’s Scorekeepers?
History suggests they might.
Thirty years ago, near the end of his first term, President Jimmy Carter and a Democratic majority in Congress grappled with economic problems and an energy crisis. They, too, promoted a host of Washington-based solutions, and the country moved against them. Ronald Reagan offered a compelling message he called “New Federalism,” transferring more power to state and local governments. He beat Jimmy Carter that year and the Republicans captured a majority in the Senate.
Fourteen years later, President Bill Clinton and another Democratic Congress offered another litany of inside-the-beltway answers. Republican candidates for Congress talked about shifting money, power, and influence to the states. In November of that year, Republicans took control of both the House and Senate.
Shifts in political mood occur for a lot of reasons. The economy and presidential approval are among the most important. Yet the changing perception of the Scorekeepers also plays a role.
Some will argue the recently signed Arizona immigration law might cause voters to think twice about turning more power over to the states. Yet while the merits of the state’s new policy will be debated, the notion of locally elected officials taking action to address a problem may be no more controversial than Barack Obama and his party in Congress deciding everyone has to follow rules concocted in Washington.
Not long after the Republicans thumped the Democrats in the 1994 congressional elections, the late New York Times writer R. W. Apple Jr. channeled the Beatles White Album with a piece titled, “You Say You Want a Devolution.”
Apple defended consolidating power in Washington. But now, like then, support for a more muscular federal Leviathan is in a downtrend. The Scorekeepers now want “devolution” in power. If Republicans embrace the tide and promote more state-based solutions, it probably means a “Hard Days Night” this November 2 for those with ambitions to grow Washington’s size, power, and influence.