Jonathan Cohn

Our Bewildered Electorate

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Americans are liberal, except when they are conservative. They want small government, only they want big government too. They love Obama except when they hate him. They want change, but sometimes they want more of the same.

People in my business, and the business of politics more generally, spend a lot of time poring over poll numbers trying to figure out what Americans really want. But Joe Klein, who is on a listening tour of the country, reminds us that sometimes Americans don't know what they want:

They can diagnose the problems, but they don't have any strong ideas about solutions. Most of the people at brunch say the government is spending too much, but when I ask whether they'd rather see the government closing the deficit or spending money to create jobs, most of them say jobs. There are ideological contradictions aplenty, which leads me to conclude that the notion of America as a conservative or moderate or liberal country is a fiction created by those of us who sit on top of Mount Opinion. More than a few voters I've met seem to be conservative, moderate and liberal all at once. Pat Moll, a police officer who doesn't like Obama at all, thinks the government should spend money to "put people to work in real jobs that last."

Joe wrote this after visiting my neighborhood, Southeastern Michigan, and listening to people struggling to make payments on "underwater" mortgages. I don't think he intended to convey any disrespect: The hard times have made people "freaked out... frustrated and anxious," he writes with obvious sympathy.

And I certainly intend no disrespect. Those of us who follow politics closely have the time, and information, to figure out what's really going on in Washington. The majority of Americans are preoccupied holding onto their jobs, paying their bills, and taking care of their families.

Confusion isn't necessarily a failure on their part. In many if not most cases, the failure is ours.

By the way, Klein's dispatches have been great reading. You can keep up with them at Time's Swampland, just like I have been.

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