Voters elected Barack Obama in November 2008 – at least in part – based on an American myth. Seventeen months later, the same allegory is creating a host of consequences for individual politicians, as well as the way citizens view political institutions like Congress.
The myth concerns the level of political consensus in America. It’s a lot lower than most people think. Polls may show high levels of agreement on generic aspirations like peace, prosperity, or even a better education system. But when it comes to specific steps to achieve these goals, things begin to unravel.
As a candidate in the 2008 campaign, Obama used the myth to his advantage. He said Americans wanted change. He said they desired an end to the partisan bickering of the past. And he offered a political promised land. All Americans needed was a smart, publicly spirited person to get us there. Barack Obama presented himself as that person, and at least in the context of the race to the White House, it worked.
Well before the Obama campaign tapped into this myth, political scientists, John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse identified this lack of consensus about the specifics of public policy as a powerful force in American politics. In their 2002 book Stealth Democracy: Americans’ Beliefs About How Government Should Work, the authors argue that most people don’t fully understand the level of conflict and disagreement inherent in American society.
Congressional debates often reflect these deep differences as policy moves from campaign rhetoric to the lawmaking process. For example, large majorities of Americans said they supported “reforming the health care system,” yet working out the specifics became another story.
The same is true for stimulating the economy. Everybody is for that, right? Yet when Congress debated the economic stimulus bill last year it devolved into a partisan circus, with all the Democrats supporting their version of stimulus and Republicans promoting completely different ideas.
All the discord produced during these and many other debates just turns people off because they believe consensus should not be that hard to find. Hibbing and Theiss-Morse write: “People dislike political conflict because they think solving problems is easier than it actually is.”
Post-partisanship and “change” sound great as campaign sound bites, but these words also underestimate the real differences that exist in American society.
Democratic Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan is the poster boy for the two scholars’ thesis. After playing a central role in the passage of the health care reform bill, he abruptly announced his retirement last week. Stupak thought he could bridge some of the deep disagreements over issues like the government’s role in health care and funding abortions. Instead, he found himself in the vortex of long standing conflicts.
Stupak said passage of the health care bill fulfilled a promise he made when he ran almost two decades ago. “I’m proud to have helped bring it across the finish line,” the New York Times reported him saying
“Helped” is an understatement. The measure would have likely failed without Stupak’s compromise on the abortion issue.
Yet the deep divisions in the country surrounding the health care bill generally, and the abortion question specifically, exposed the conflicts in America when policy moves from broader goals like “reform” to detailed legislation. Stupak learned firsthand that trying to find compromise can look a lot like selling out your principles. He discovered President Obama’s dream of post-partisanship didn’t work in the real world. It only uncovered the deeply held differences among voters in his district – disagreements that contributed to his decision to retire.
Congress as an institution also suffered reputational backlash as voters realized Obama’s Kumbaya didn’t translate to the legislative process. Analyzing congressional approval/disapproval in polling is one way to measure Congress’s change in status among citizens over the last year. For example, Congress’s net disapproval more than doubled from -25 points (58 percent disapprove/33 percent approve) to -57 points according to the Real Clear Politics average of all public surveys measuring congressional support from April 2009 to April 2010. Congressional consideration of issues like the stimulus bill, cap and trade, and health care all exposed deep divisions among rank-and-file voters. The partisan conflicts generated by these issues drove down congressional approval ratings over the past year.
Lawmakers, like Bart Stupak, and Congress as an institution bears the consequences of President Obama downplaying real differences and raising false hopes that he could bridge this diversity.
The myth of consensus on public policy explains why many Americans hate politics. They just don’t understand why Congress and the president can’t find common accord. The answer: that consensus doesn’t exist. Barack Obama did little to help the country understand its differences. Instead, he perpetuated the myth. His approval numbers, as well as those of Congress, are now suffering as a result.