The Pew Center for People and the Press finds that Americans have specific complaints about their government: it has the wrong priorities. It doesn’t do enough for Main Street. It is growing too fast without caring about saddling future generations with debt. It isn’t getting the job done. These are reasonable concerns that flow naturally from the course of events over the past year.
Republicans have created a feedback loop: every Obama accomplishment is shunted to the “Socialism” box, and every Obama failure is designated as a sign that Democrats can’t govern. Within the narrow confines of this rhetoric framework, Democrats aren’t going to get much political credit for their successes outside of their own base, which is exactly what we’ve seen: Democrats are growing more enthusiastic about the fall elections, which may help limit their party’s losses, but Republicans remain as exercised and as enthusiastic as ever.
But the most interesting number in the Pew survey is that 30% of Americans now believe that government represents a serious threat to their personal freedoms. The last time this question was asked in a poll was 2003, when 18% expressed a similar sentiment to the Washington Post. This 30% includes 43% of Republicans, fully half of Republican-leaning independents, and 57% of people who identify with the Tea Party movement.
When we think of Republican-leaning independents, our binary conception of politics draws the mind to conclude that these folks tend to be more centrist than the average Republican. But that’s not correct. In fact, the evidence from this poll is that they are more conservative; they reject the Republican identity not because it’s too conservative, but because it did not reflect their values enough. The GOP is shrinking as a party, but the number of people who’ll vote for Republican candidates is fairly constant. The tranche of Americans who occupy the space between Republican self-identifiers and the extreme reactionary right are the most politically engaged, and the most angry.
Pew’s researchers conclude:
Consistent with this pattern of partisanship, anti-government sentiment appears to be a more significant driver of possible turnout among Republicans and independents than among Democrats. Among Republican voters who are highly dissatisfied with government, 83% say they are absolutely certain to vote in the midterm elections; that compares with 67% of Republicans who express low levels of frustration with government. By contrast, there is no difference in intention to vote among Democrats who are highly frustrated with government (63%) and those who are less frustrated (64%).