Liberalism and Conservatism Have The Same Glass Jaw—The Voters Don’t Want Change

“Last month,” writes Ross Douthat, “Republicans staring at defeat in November alternated between blaming Mitt Romney and blaming the American people, when they should have been looking harder at the flaws in contemporary conservatism.” Now he thinks Democrats are making the same mistake.

It’s a good post and you should read it, but I’d like to stand up for the idea of blaming the American people. Roughly speaking, liberals and conservatives have the exact same “glass jaw” in American politics, which is that they want to change things and the voters don’t. The political press seems to have a hard time admitting this, but all evidence points to the complete opposite of a widespread hunger for change anchored by bold plans and courageous thinking. What people want, overwhelmingly, is a politician who’ll promise not to do anything. As Republicans discovered when they tried to privatize Social Security and again when they unveiled a plan to privatize Medicare, people don’t want a transformation of the American welfare state. And as Democrats discovered with their universal health care program, people don’t want a transformation of the American welfare state. Nobody will spell out what tax deductions they would eliminate as part of a comprehensive tax reform becuase people don’t want a transformation of the tax code. People mock the timidity of Mitt Romney’s promise to balance the budget by cutting PBS funding, but it turns out that cutting PBS funding is unpopular. In fact, people don’t want to cut spending on anything any more than they want a serious policy to tackle climate change.

Policy entrepreneurs who are seriously committed to change tend to find ways to persuade themselves that voters secretly agree with them, but these soundings always suffer from abstract/concrete problems. 53 percent of voters are “completely” or “somewhat” dissatisfied with K-12 education in America, but only 21 percent are dissatisfied with their own kids’ school. Romney’s most important promise in the Medicare reform debate is that nobody who’s old will have to face any changes, and Obama’s most important promise in the Affordable Care Act debate was that nobody who’s currently insured would have their coverage change.

This tension between ideologues’ desire to change things up and citizens’ love of the status quo seems like a pretty natural part of the political process. But what’s weird about America today is the conspicuous silence of the center. Where else but the middle would we expect politicians to stand tall and proud in defense of widely popular existing arrangements?

And yet they don’t. The great fetish among politicians with centrist branding in the United States is to be a “radical center” rather than a mushy middle that pushes both kinds of change simultaneously. That’s how we end up with a Simpson-Bowles plan that raises taxes and cuts the military by more than Obama has proposed, while simultaneously cutting domestic programs much too aggressively for liberals to endorse. It’s a higher synethesis of everything people dislike about both sides. And yet all Washington can think to argue about is which party is more to blame for the failure to achieve it.