In trying to explain why our political paralysis seems to have gotten so much worse over the past year, analysts have rounded up a plausible collection of reasons including: President Barack Obama's tactical missteps, the obstinacy of congressional Republicans, rising partisanship in Washington, the blustering idiocracy of the cable news stations and the Senate filibuster.
These are all large factors, but the list neglects what may be the biggest culprit: the childishness, ignorance and growing incoherence of the public at large.
Anybody who says you can't have it both ways clearly hasn't been spending much time reading opinion polls lately. One year ago, 59 percent of the American public liked the stimulus plan, according to Gallup. A few months later, with the economy still deeply mired in recession, a majority of the same size said Obama was spending too much money on it.
There's nothing wrong with changing your mind, but opinion polls over the last year reflect something more troubling: a country that simultaneously demands and rejects action on unemployment, deficits, health care, climate change and other major problems. Sixty percent of Americans want stricter regulations of financial institutions. But nearly the same proportion says we're suffering from too much regulation on business. That kind of illogic is what locks the status quo in place.
We dislike government in the abstract: According to CNN, 67 percent of people favor balancing the budget even when the country is in a recession or a war, which is madness.
But we love government in the particular: Even larger majorities oppose the kind of spending cuts that would reduce projected deficits, let alone eliminate them. Nearly half the public wants to cancel the Obama stimulus, and a strong majority doesn't want another round of it. But 80-plus percent of people want to extend unemployment benefits and to spend more money on roads and bridges. There's another term for that stuff: more stimulus spending.
The usual way to describe such inconsistent demands from voters is to say that the public is an angry, populist, tea-partying mood. But a lot more people are watching American Idol than are watching Glenn Beck, and our collective illogic is mostly negligent rather than militant.
The more compelling explanation is that the American public lives in Candyland, where government can tackle the big problems and get out of the way at the same time. In this respect, the whole country is becoming more like California, where ignorance is bliss and the state's bonds have dropped to an A- rating (the same as Libya's), thanks to a referendum system that allows the people to be even more irresponsible than their elected representatives.
Middle class Americans really don't want to hear about sacrifices or trade-offs — except as flattering descriptions about how ready we, as a people, are, or used to be, to accept them. We like the idea of hard choices in theory. When was the last time we made one in reality?
Our inability to address long-term challenges makes a strong case that the United States now faces an era of historical decline. Our reluctance to recognize economic choices also portends negative effects for the rest of the world. To change this story line, we need to stop blaming the rascals we elect to office and start looking to ourselves.
Jacob Weisberg is chairman and editor in chief of the Slate Group and author of The Bush Tragedy.