A grand bargain is a grand betrayal: The forgotten, lonely world of facts

That the United States is centre-right and Obama must needs compromise on slashing the welfare state is a myth.

Barack Obama
A bipartisan plan to fix the economy by balanced deficit reduction is a good solution for a fact-free world [AP]

“Facts are stupid things,” Ronald Reagan once said, hilariously misquoting Founding Father John Adams, your typical elitist Enlightenment intellectual, who actually said, “Facts are stubborn things, and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” But in the contest between the real world of John Adams and the fantasy world bequeathed to us by Ronald Reagan, stupid and stubborn are on both on the side of the latter… and the latter is winning, hands down, as can be seen in President Obama’s pursuit of a so-called “grand bargain” that would cut far more in spending than it would raise in taxes. In the Reaganite fantasy world of Washington DC, Obama represents the left. In the real world? Well, take a look for yourself.

There is a political party in the United States whose presidential candidate got over 60 million votes, and whose members – according to the General Social Survey – overwhelmingly think we’re spending too little on Social Security, rather than spending too much, by a lopsided margin of 52-12. The party, of course, is the Republican Party.

There is as an ideological label claimed by over 100 million Americans, who collectively think we’re spending too little on “improving and protecting the nation’s health”, rather than spending too much, by a 2-1 margin: 48-24.  The labelled ideology, of course, is conservative.

Combine the two categories and the two spending questions, and you find that a 51.4 percent of conservative Republicans think we’re spending too little on either Social Security, health care or both. Only 28.7 percent think we’re spending too much, and just 7.3 percent think we’re spending too much on both.

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That’s 7.3 percent of conservative Republicans in support of the position taken by leaders of both political parties – Republicans, who want to slash the welfare state drastically while making permanent tax cuts for the rich, and Democrats, led by President Obama, who wants a more “balanced” approach, with $2.50 cut from spending for every $1 added in taxes. Other Democrats, particularly in Congress, are trying to push back against Obama, without letting their slips show, and Obama is doing his best to hide what he’s up to, but there is simply no way to get $4 trillion in cuts – almost $1 trillion already agreed to and another $3 trillion in his current proposal – without deep spending cuts that even a majority of conservative Republicans oppose.

Yet, as the Guardian reports, Obama’s grassroots campaign organisation is being kept alive after the campaign, and pushing this far right agenda is their first emailed call to action. “It’s now clear that ordinary citizens will also be subjected to a full bore messaging campaign to persuade them that they should regard this counterproductive sacrifice as good for them,” notes leading econoblogger Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism. She also notes, correctly, that “most Americans have a simple response to the notion of ‘reforming’ these popular programmes: Cut military budgets and raise taxes on upper income groups”.

Something we can all agree on

The figures cited above come from the General Social Survey of 2010. The GSS is the gold standard of public opinion research in the United States. Social scientists reference it more often than any other data source except for the US Census. The GSS has been asking these same questions since the 1970s, with similar ones added to its list over time. The responses to those questions reveal a much broader truth – the American people like the various different functions of the welfare state, regardless of their political ideology or affiliation. They like spending on highways, roads and bridges, mass transportation, education, child care, urban problems, alternative energy, you name it.

For example, in 2010, if we combine six questions – adding education, mass transit, highways and bridges, and urban problems to Social Security and health care – then the percentage of conservative Republicans saying we spend too much on all of them drops to a minuscule 0.4 percent, while two-thirds (66.5 percent) say we are spending too little on at least one of them. They may philosophically subscribe to the idea of shrinking government, but pragmatically they know what works and they want more of it, not less. Americans are famously described as being pragmatic, rather than ideological, and in this respect, at least, that political cliche is absolutely right.

Indeed, 2010 was only remarkable as a year in which anti-welfare state hysteria had been whipped up to a fever pitch. If one looked instead at the combined surveys for 2006, 2008 and 2010, then two-thirds of conservative Republicans (66.6 percent) thought we were spending too little on one or both of health care and Social Security, compared to just under one in seven (14 percent) who thought we were spending too much on at least one. A mere 5.1 percent thought we were spending too much on both. 

In the world of stubborn and stupid, America is a centre-right nation, and it really does make no sense that Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney. He’s trying to compromise with the Republicans because he has to: Their insistence on slashing the welfare state represents the overwhelming consensus of American political opinion, regardless of the last election’s results. But in the forgotten, lonely world of facts, none of that is true.

The need for a restatement

While GSS data since 1973 repeatedly confirms this pattern of welfare state support even from self-identified conservatives, the pattern was actually first described and discussed in the 1967 book The Political Beliefs of Americans by Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril, two towering pioneers of public opinion research. Their book was based on surveys conducted in 1964, almost a full decade before the GSS data begins. The disjunction between what they called “operational” liberalism and ideological conservatism was one of the dominant themes of their book (they identified ideological conservatism by agreement with a set of five questions about government interference versus individual initiative). In the final section of the final chapter of the book, titled, “The Need for a Restatement of American Ideology”, they wrote:

“The paradox of a large majority of Americans qualifying as operational liberals while at the same time a majority hold to a conservative ideology has been repeatedly emphasised in this study. We have described this state of affairs as mildly schizoid, with people believing in one set of principles abstractly while acting according to another set of principles in their political behaviour. But the principles according to which the majority of Americans actually behave politically have not yet been adequately formulated in modern terms…

“There is little doubt that the time has come for a restatement of American ideology to bring it in line with what the great majority of people want and approve. Such a statement, with the right symbols incorporated, would focus people’s wants, hopes, and beliefs, and provide a guide and platform to enable the American people to implement their political desires in a more intelligent, direct, and consistent manner.”

This, of course, never took place. Two major political figures who might have helped foster such a restatement – Dr Martin Luther King, Jr and Robert F Kennedy – were assassinated the next year. Philosopher John Rawls’ Theory of Justice actually embodied that restatement in a brilliantly simple abstract metaphor, the veil of ignorance, but his ideas never found the sort of symbolic amplification that Free and Cantril rightly recognised as crucial.

Instead, American politics took a much darker turn, one led by the indulgence of racist animosity, whose influence only became more deeply embedded over time, even as its initial expression was formally abandoned, and condemned. This turn can even be seen implicitly there in Free and Cantril’s data. It’s not just the case that Americans as a whole are schizoid – operationally liberal (65 percent according to their data) while ideologically conservative (50 percent). It’s particularly true of a crucial subset: 23 percent of the population is both operationally liberal and ideologically conservative. And here’s the kicker: The proportion of people fitting this description was double that in the five Southern states that Barry Goldwater carried in 1964 – the only states in the nation he carried aside from his home state of Arizona. 

What this clearly implied, we can now see with hindsight, is that this population could be tipped either way, and was particularly vulnerable by tipping on the issue of race. Even though Goldwater himself abhorred making racist appeals, activists and even party organisations working for him had no such qualms, and the states he carried reflected that. Indeed, we can even see this today in GSS data, by looking at differences within the broad spectrum of support for government spending.

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If, for example, we consider two different spending questions which bear on dealing with the problem of global warming – support for spending on the environment and for developing alternative energy (a new question just added in 2010) – we find a difference between liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, but the difference is entirely within the realm of overwhelming support. Democrats say we’re spending too little versus too much on both by 57.8 percent to 0.3 percent – a factor of almost 200-to-1 – while Republicans agree by “only” 29.8 percent to 6.6 percent – a factor of more than 4-to-1. For liberals, its more than 80-to-1 (65.2 percent to 0.8 percent), while for conservatives its better than 5-to-1 (29.6 percent to 5.7 percent). So the differences are stark – but they’re all in the realm of overwhelming support for more spending. It’s like comparing a rabid football fan to another rabid football fan with season tickets for his extended family.

When we look at spending on poor people and blacks, however, the picture is starkly different. Liberals once again say we’re spending too little rather than too much on both by an overwhelming margin, 25-to-1 (39.8 percent  to 1.6 percent), but Republicans are evenly split (10.5 percent to 10.4 percent). For liberals the ratio is roughly 20-to-1 (35.3 percent to 1.8 percent), while for conservatives it’s 3-to-2 (15.6 percent to 10.0 percent). But when you combine the categories, that’s when the depth of the difference really stands out. For liberal Democrats, the ratio is 200-to-1 (40.8 percent to 0.2 percent), while for conservative Republicans it’s more than 2-to-1 in the other direction (6.4 percent to 13.8 percent). In short, the one way to get conservative Republicans to be operationally conservative is to talk about poor people and blacks – in 19th century terms “the undeserving poor”. And yes, since you asked, they really do still think that way. If you want to know where Mitt Romney’s talk of the 47 percent came from, you need look no farther than this.

Just the facts

But America rejected Romney’s vision, didn’t they? As the last few million votes are still being totalled, his percentage of the vote has dwindled down… to 47 percent, ironically. And yet, Obama’s reasoning, even his “progressive” argument to his base is articulated within a conservative framework, one that highlights the deficit as the focus of hysterical concern, even when it tries to sound sensible and sober. Thus, the email call to his volunteers mentioned above said that Obama was “working with leaders of both parties in Washington to reduce the deficit in a balanced way so we can lay the foundation for long-term middle-class job growth and prevent your taxes from going up”.

The idea of a bipartisan plan to grow the economy by balanced deficit reduction is understandably quite popular. It ranks right up there with the pizza-beer-and-ice-cream-heart-healthy-weight-loss-diet plan: The perfect solution for a fact-free world. But, as a recent letter from 350 economists points out, “[T]oo many in Washington are fixated on cutting public spending to balance the budget, not on how to put people back to work and get our economy going”, but “there is no theory of economics that explains how we can deflate our way to recovery“. To the contrary, as they pointed out, the opposite is true: “As Great Britain, Ireland, Spain and Greece have shown, inflicting austerity on a weak economy leads to deeper recession, rising unemployment and increasing misery.”

But it’s not just this popular proposal is a fantasy. It’s also not really that popular if you ask folks about specifics. Which is just what Democracy Corps and Campaign for America’s Future did with an election eve poll. In particular, they asked about all the major components of the Simpson-Bowles Plan, the informal background for Obama’s “balanced deficit reduction plan”. Every single component they asked about was deemed unacceptable by landslide majorities.

  • “Capping Medicare payments, forcing seniors to pay more” was rejected 79-18.
  • “Requiring deep cuts in domestic programmes without protecting programmes for infants, poor children, schools and college aid” was rejected 75-21
  • “Cutting discretionary spending, like education, child nutrition, worker training, and disease control” was rejected 72-25.
  • “Not raising taxes on the rich” was rejected 68-28.
  • “Continuing to tax investors’ income at lower rates than workers’ pay” was rejected 63-26.
  • “Reducing Social Security benefits over time by having them rise more slowly than the cost of living” was rejected 62-31.

Turning to the subject of preserving Medicare:

  • “Capping Medicare payments, forcing seniors to pay more” was rejected 79-18.
  • But – taking a very different approach, “Save Medicare costs by negotiating lower drug prices from drug companies” was supported 89-8.

Robert L Borosage warned in a cover story for the Nation magazine, which cites some of these same strong views opposing what the fantasy rhetoric hides. “The grand bargain not only offers the wrong answer; it poses the wrong question,” Borosage writes. The right question, of course, is what to do about the stranglehold of wealth and income inequality that has developed over the past 30+ years, and how to secure the future of the 99 percent that have been left behind. “The call for shared sacrifice makes no sense,” Borosage argues, “given that in recent decades, the rewards have not been shared.”

A truly progressive vision, stubbornly rooted in the world of facts would focus like a laser beam on the right question. This is what FDR’s New Deal was all about at bottom – rebuilding the nation’s prosperity from the bottom up. The economic soundness of his approach can be seen in the decades of broadly shared prosperity that followed in his wake. The political soundness can be seen in the polling data cited above – particularly the measures of conservative support. Those are the stubborn facts that President Obama ought to be attending to. And leave the stubborn fantasies behind. It’s time he set aside his love affair with Ronald Reagan. John Adams is waiting in the wings.

Paul Rosenberg is the senior editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.