Stop Lying To Us, America!

Stop Lying To Us, America!

Four libertarian things we tell pollsters that we don't really believe.
David Harsanyi
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A recent Rasmussen poll found that one in three Americans would rather win a Nobel Prize than an Oscar, Emmy or Grammy.

Though there’s no way to disprove this peculiar finding, I’m rather confident that it’s complete baloney. The average American probably can’t name more than one Nobel Prize winner – if that. Even if they could, it’s unlikely many would choose a life in physics or “peace” over being a celebrated actor, musician or television star. Put it this way, any man who tells you he wants the life of Nobel Prize-winning Ahmet Uzumcu, Director General of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, instead of George Clooney is lying. And that includes Ahmet Uzumcu.

Polls might have been precise in forecasting recent elections (though, 2012 pollsters only received an average “C+ grade” in a poll conducted by Pew Research Center; we’re waiting on a poll that tells us what to think about polls that poll polls), but it’s getting difficult to believe much of anything else. Beyond sampling biases or phraseology biases, many recent polls prove that Americans will tell pollsters what they think they think, but not how they intend to act. Part of the problem is social desirability bias — the tendency to give answers that they believe will be viewed favorably by others. That might explain why someone would tell a pollster that he would rather win a Nobel Prize than a Grammy. There is also confirmation bias — the tendency of people to say things that confirm their beliefs or theories. Whatever the case, voters are fooling themselves in various ways. And when it comes to politics, they’re also giving small-government types like myself false hope.

Here are a few recent examples:

‘We Hate Congress’

“In the wake of the government shutdown and threat of the U.S. defaulting on its debt for the first time in history,” 60 percent of Americans in a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll claim that if they had the chance to vote to defeat and replace every single member of Congress, including their own representative, they would do it. That’s the highest percentage reached since the question has been asked.

To begin with, congressional favorability polls are useless. The only poll that matters to a politician is the one that samples his own constituents. Presidential favorability polls aren’t much better, because the only question that really matters there is: would you rather have the other guy? Moreover, those polled dislike congress for an array of reasons – for not being conservative or liberal enough, for instance —  and broadly speaking, everyone hates elected officials.

Or, more precisely, everyone really hates your elected official. Fact is that the incumbency business is as good as it’s ever been. And that trend is only accelerating. After 2012, the Bloomberg Government Barometer found that though approval of Congress was then at an all-time low, 9 in 10 members House and Senate who ran for reelection were successful in their races. Scott Brown of Massachusetts – a Republican who was elected in unconventional circumstance in a heavily Blue state — was the only member of the Senate to lose in the general election. That was an improvement over the 85/86 percent incumbent success rate of 2010, which was considered a sweeping “change” election. I’m not sure that it’s unhealthy for the nation to have so many people living in districts and states that represent them so well; but it sure doesn’t sound like a populace pining to get rid of their representatives.

‘We Want a Third Party’

A new Gallup poll finds that 60 percent of Americans believe that the major political parties have done such an appalling job representing their constituents that the system is in dire need of a third party. A meager 26 percent believe the two major parties are adequately representing America. That’s the highest/lowest showing of this kind in the 10-years since Gallup started posing the question.

The thing is, we already have third parties — and fourth, fifth and sixth – and very few people give them even the slightest consideration. Why? Probably because the major parties already represent consensus on both the right and left. Now, many of you might believe that the consensus has pulled too far to the right or left, but, in the end, it mostly pulls the party to the middle. Dissatisfaction with the two-party system doesn’t mean voters are willing to throw their vote to a third-party candidate no matter what they tell a pollster.

Take last month’s Quinnipiac poll of the Virginia gubernatorial race that showed Democrat Terry McAuliffe with 44 percent, Republican Ken Cuccinelli with 41 percent and Robert Sarvis, the Libertarian candidate, with 7 percent.  If history is any clue, Sarvis will pull in 2 percent, if he’s lucky, and fail to make much of a difference even though the libertarian “spoiler” is a perennial story in the media. Much of his poll support is probably a reflection of the general dissatisfaction with Washington.

Throwing inconsequential moral support behind a third-party makes people feel virtuous (even though, in the end, it would mean less representation for those voters, not more) but few voters believe in the idea in practice. We know this because of an extensive, 200-year test case on the subject.

‘We’re Super Worried About Debt’

Polls reliably find that national debt is one the primary concerns of the average American voter. When given an array of choices — education, national security, environment, etc. — and asked to prioritize them, respondents almost always place national debt as one of their top issues.

How worried could they really be, though? When was the last time a politician won an election with a plan that spent less and cut more? When was the last time a majority of Americans supported reforms that would deal with deficit in any meaningful way? Broadly speaking, voters want to tackle the debt problem. But they don’t like any of the specifics.

recent poll conducted by The Hill, for instance, found that a majority of voters believe cutting America’s debt was vital – but hardly any of them supported individual reforms that deal with the programs that drive the national debt. Sixty-two percent of Republicans and 82 percent of Democrats opposed cutting entitlement programs.  Every attempt to reform any part of the entitlement system is met with an outcry from voters. Americans are willing to cut military spending and tax the rich. We could have an army the size of Belizean marines and tax everyone with an income of over $1 million 100 percent and it still wouldn’t make much of a dent in the long-term debt.

So either American don’t get what the debt problem really looks like, or they don’t really care. Maybe they hear so much about it, they feel like we should be worried (and we should). Or maybe the debt in their lives has serious consequences, so they feel compelled to say they’re apprehensive. Americans, though, have never really felt the consequences of government debt. So we may say we care, but we  sure don’t vote like we do.

‘Government is too big’

Supposedly, six in 10 Americans believe the federal government has too much power — one percentage point from the highest level in September 2010. According to Gallup, at least half of Americans since 2005 have said the government has too much power and 32 percent believe the government has an appropriate amount of power.

Where is the proof that a majority of Americans want less government? Americans have elected two presidents who have vastly expanded the scope of government and both of them won reelection rather comfortably.  We’ve see major initiatives in expanding government into education, health care, markets, and surveillance – to name just a few. President Barack Obama won his office rather convincingly twice, and whatever you make of his policies, he’s consistently preached that about the moral imperative of expanding the reach of government’s hand. Left populism is more successful than ever. It’s wholly American to claim to believe that government is too big, but increasingly citizens have a stake in keeping it that way. So when you bore down into the numbers there are few places Americans are willing to cut back power. It’s more likely that voters view government as having too much power when government is being run by someone else.

Unless, of course, you think you’re a libertarian, which is something more and more of you claim to be, according to polls. According to election results, not so much. Who knows, one day a majority of voters may believe all the idealistic things they tell pollsters about the size, scope and ineptitude of government. But the evidence doesn’t suggest that we’re even close yet.

David Harsanyi is a Senior Editor at The Federalist. Follow him on Twitter.

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