Matt Yglesias Misses The Point

I think Yglesias is generally a decent read, but he’s also significantly hit-or-miss, regularly offering up some truly out-to-lunch takes on various issues. Today was one of those days. Yglesias writes a post at Slate about how voters “don’t want change.” It’s not as bad as it sounds; Yglesias isn’t bashing Obama for ever having promoted change. Instead, it’s more of a broadside against the silliness of any politician who thinks the voters want anything different than the status quo:

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 evidence of this thesis, Yglesias offers the Bush-era drive by Republicans to privatize Social Security (which failed miserably) and the polling which consistently shows a majority of voters reacting negatively to “Obamacare.”

Yet neither of these explanations satisfies. It’s true that the public soundly rebuffed the Dubya-led effort to privatize Social Security in the late aughts. But Yglesias’ explanation (that voters simply don’t want any changes to the welfare state) doesn’t explain why so much of the tea party and other groups (which presumably contain their share of retirees) are willing to listen to the idea of a “grand bargain” or Simpson-Bowles’ prescriptions for cutting entitlements. Yes, the overall sentiment in the public is that they enjoy these entitlements, but that’s not indicative of a simple abstract preference for no change, it’s merely a reflection of the fact that they’re entitlements: people are receiving benefits which help them and their loved ones and people they know. It’s a bit like wondering whether people are in favor of food.

In the case of Obamacare, Yglesias is too plugged-in to the political scene not to know that the reason a plurality, if not a majority of voters have a negative reaction to “Obamacare” is that the GOP did such a fantastic job of demonizing it with talk of “death panels” and “pulling the plug on grandma” and “creeping socialism” during the debate that the administration allowed to go on for far too long. Yglesias also surely knows that when polling is conducted on the individual specific portions of “Obamacare” (in other words: on what it actually DOES), the moving parts of the PPACA score individually much higher than the entire thing. That’s because people really do understand that something is broken and needs to change in the health care delivery (and especially financing) system. It’s too expensive, and it doesn’t work as well as it should. The disconnect between the popularity of the PPACA’s actual components and the prevailing unpopularity of the official measure “Obamacare” casts doubt on Yglesias’ notion of voters simply preferring no change as a policy.

Of COURSE voters (and consumers, and people in general) are skeptical of change. This isn’t a revelatory insight. But it also misstates the case in a slight but crucial way: skeptical isn’t the same as opposed. It isn’t that voters are dead-set against change (whether towards the right or the left), it’s that the bulk of them lack the ability to envision what that change might look like.

It’s no different from the world of consumers, really. People weren’t dead-set against tablet computers before the iPad, though some observers thought so. After all, tablets had been around for years and had never really caught on. Remember? “Netbooks” were supposed to be all the coming rage? And then Steve Jobs – a guy with vision – showed people what they didn’t know until he made it clear for them: that they did want (some even say need, these days) iPads.

The bulk of average voters may lack the vision to articulate exactly the form of the change they want, and observers like Matt may conclude this means that “all evidence points to the complete opposite of a widespread hunger for change.” But if people were really dead-set against any change, whether left or right, then they’d express a lot more satisfaction with the status quo. Do they? Of course not. Yes, there’s a certain “better the devil you know” aversion to the unknown…but let’s not get silly and mistake that for a hunger for stasis. Complaining about the status quo is nearly as much of a national pastime as baseball or football.

In 2012, after all the changes in retail politics and the media, elections are still won, in the end, the way they always have been: by competently articulating a compelling vision of what you would do if elected that’s better than what exists now (or what your opponent offers). They’re won by showing the public just enough of how you could improve things in a way they didn’t think of themselves that they want to go along for the ride, too. Sure, it’s a knack, doing all of that right. But doing it wrong doesn’t mean voters “want a politician who’ll promise not to do anything.” Barack Obama proved in 2008 that change could be a powerful motivating electoral force just as Steve Jobs proved that clear-headed innovation and a first-class job of explaining it to people could sell millions of units.