This item by Andrew Levison was originally published on June 15, 2011.
In a TDS Strategy Memo that got fairly wide attention last week I argued that “a very strong anti-Keynesian perspective on job creation is now widespread among American voters” and that therefore “simply repeating the traditional Democratic narrative — regardless of how frequently or emphatically — will not produce significant attitude change.”
In the process of being paraphrased and restated by other commentators, these two statements became transformed into two quite distinct assertions (a) that a “majority” of American voters no longer accept Keynesian measures and (b) as a result, Dems can no longer win their support for further action to create jobs.
Neither of these revised statements is correct. Let’s take them one at a time.
First, as far as how many Americans actually accept the explicitly anti-Keynesian view that cutting spending would really produce jobs, polling specialist Ruy Teixeira points to the following “forced choice” Washington Post poll as particularly revealing:
Do you think large cuts in federal spending would do more to create jobs or do more to cut jobs in this country?”
More to create jobs – 41%
More to cut jobs – 45%
Neither (vol.) -7%
Unsure — 7%
This is as close as one can come to an absolute, “gun to the head” forced-choice -the wording of the question doesn’t even offer the respondent a “neither” option — and even so 15 percent either said “neither” or that they just didn’t know. So, at the very best, only a minority of 40% of the American people really support the explicitly ideological anti-Keynesian position that cutting spending will create jobs.
On the other hand, however, the textbook Keynesian view that “cutting spending destroys jobs” also falls short of a majority. So, on this poll, Keynesians and anti-Keynesians seem roughly tied and neither has an absolute majority.
But look at what happens when respondents are given a third choice.
“If the government makes major cuts in federal spending this year in an effort to reduce the budget deficit, do you think these cuts will: [randomize] help the job situation/hurt the job situation, or not have much of an effect either way?”
Help – 18%
Hurt – 34%
Not have much of an effect either way — 41%
In this case the explicitly ideological anti-Keynesian view drops very dramatically to 18%. In contrast, a larger group of about a third of the sample takes a “Keynesian” view that spending cuts would hurt job creation while the remainder feels that spending cuts would “not have much of an effect either way”. The number of Americans who genuinely and passionately believe that massive spending cuts would really create millions of new jobs is therefore likely closer to the 20% figure in this poll than the 41% “forced choice” figure in the previous poll.
But what about those 41% in this second survey who say cuts would not have much of an effect either way?
A professor teaching a traditional Economics 101 course would say that people who think cutting spending during a deep recession would not have any effect at all are not only factually wrong but are also technically expressing an “anti-Keynesian” view. But many of the people choosing the “not much effect” option are not really making a serious macroeconomic forecast (i.e. “I predict that the net effect of major spending reductions on the unemployment rate will be zero”) but rather a view that is more accurately viewed as basically “skeptical” or “cynical” as opposed to ideologically anti-Keynesian.
This important skeptical group really has no concrete ideas about how to create jobs. The general faith in government that voters in the 1950’s and 1960’s shared is largely gone today and nothing has arisen to replace it. What is left is essentially a cynicism – one that is expressed in four typical propositions
1. “Today’s crisis is nothing new. Factories have been closing and huge numbers of jobs have been exported to other countries constantly since the 1980’s. The 2009 crash made things worse, but the good jobs and decent salaries that created the middle class life of the past have been going down the toilet for decades and nobody in Washington has ever done a thing about it”.
2. “Government can’t really solve problems. It always screws up anything it does. It can throw money around, but that’s about it.”
3. “The politicians in Washington don’t give the slightest damn about people like me. They take care of their fat-cat contributors and big business lobbyists and sell the average person down the river every chance they get.”
4. “We gotta stop just getting deeper in debt. We’re borrowing money from the Chinese and everyone else like a drunk on a binge and sooner or later the party has to stop.”
This is the picture of the attitudes of a broad group of “average” voters that emerges from Democracy Corps’ latest in-depth polling and focus group studies. It represents a coherent and essentially cynical perception of the current situation.
Here’s how the Democracy Corps memo expresses it:
…for broad swaths of the electorate – from white non-college voters and women (married and unmarried), to suburbanites and Midwesterners…The “economy” is not the recovery, but a set of powerful on-going realities: a middle class smashed and struggling, American jobs being lost, the country and people in debt, and the nexus of big money and power that leaves common people excluded.
If Democrats get it and embrace that reality as their mission, there is potential for immense dividends. As we will see, voters are desperate for leaders who understand the scope of what is happening to them, the middle class and America….
When this is understood, it quickly becomes clear why the traditional Democratic narrative no longer resonates with this group. The usual Democratic stump speech starts by quoting statistics about the latest unemployment figures and the month to month progress (or lack of it) of the economic recovery. The speech goes on to describe the hardships of the unemployed and then asserts that the great depression and the post-war II era proved that government spending can create jobs. It ends by arguing that the only thing stopping us from creating jobs is Republican indifference and voodoo economic theories and that all that is really required to solve the problem is political will.
The remarkable fact about this Democratic narrative is the following — it does not genuinely respond to even a single one of the doubts the cynics express nor does it try to answer a single one of their objections. It assumes the audience has the same faith in government that voters did in the 1950’s and that they simply need to hear Democrats clearly, loudly and passionately promise that they will employ the traditional remedies.
But, if the traditional Democratic narrative about Keynesian/New Deal job creation does not resonate with these voters, what can Democrats say that this cynical group will respond to?
The first step is simple. It’s for Democrats to clearly tell these voters that they are absolutely right. Factory closings and job exports have been going on for decades. Government policies have not been sufficient, Congress is grotesquely corrupt and long term debt and deficits do need to be controlled.
As the D-Corp memo argues, the first, absolutely indispensible step is to show that Democrats genuinely understand and agree with the feelings expressed by this group. Probably not one out of twenty of these people could quote the latest unemployment rate but every single one could describe what has been going wrong in America for decades.
The second step is to propose very specific measures that directly speak to the major issues these voters raise – not broad and abstract programs that sound like they will never really happen but concrete practical steps that make “good old fashioned common sense”.
1. Stop enacting tax credits and other incentives that encourage U.S. companies to export jobs overseas. Remove every single one of these damn incentives and replace them with incentives for producing in the U.S.
2. Fight the corruption in politics. As the Democracy Corp study puts it: “Washington is dominated by big banks, big donors and corporate lobbyists so politicians rush to bailout Wall Street. The middle class won’t catch a break until we confront the power of money and the lobbyists. Expose their meetings, clean out tax loopholes, and limit donations. Getting the economy back for the middle class starts with changing politics”.
3. Fight for a fair tax system that closes loopholes and cracks down on tax evasion. This will let us pay for the things we need while keeping taxes low for ordinary Americans.
4. Cut spending but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. There are things we really do need government to do. Instead of letting politicians and lobbyists make the decisions, let average Americans have a major role in deciding what to cut and what to continue to support. There are practical ways to make this happen.
At first glance this approach seems odd because it does not directly propose major measures to create jobs. But the paradoxical fact that the Democracy Corp studies have shown is that this “indirect” perspective on unemployment is how many of these cynical voters see and understand their real problems. It is not the month to month changes in the 8 or 9% unemployment rate today that they see as the critical issue but rather the decades-long destruction of decent jobs and economic security.
For these voters Democrats are simply not convincing when they say “we really care– we’ll create jobs,” no matter how loudly or passionately they say it. These voters need to hear Democrats say “We’ll fight to deal with the problems as you see them – the export of jobs and the growth of a “Burger King economy”, the utter corruption of government by big money, the ballooning debt and deficits that symbolize the failure to make government work for the people.”
Let’s be clear. This does not mean that Democrats should not propose “big job-creating ideas” — an infrastructure bank, the “Make it in America” program,” major investments in green energy and so on. These ideas are morally and socially right, the Keynesian economic theory behind them is solidly proven and intellectually sound and the 45% of the American people who reliably support Obama and the Democrats rightfully and justifiably expect Dems to stand up and support them.
But in order to reach the critical group of skeptical or cynical voters who are not convinced by this traditional approach, Democrats must make the additional effort to genuinely “see the world through their eyes” — to recognize their legitimate grievances and champion their legitimate demands.
These voters are not ideological anti-Keynesians; they are potential supporters and allies who have lost their faith in Democratic politics and policies. They must be given convincing reasons to regain it.