The art of ignoring the voters

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which is running until October 20 at my local community playhouse, isn’t my favorite kind of historical drama — it’s an aggressive mashup of anachronisms that can’t seem to decide how true it wants to be to the real story that it’s telling — but if you read it pretty narrowly, as a skewering of populism and a certain kind of revolutionary, it has some clever points.

Some of the play’s most biting elements don’t involve Andrew Jackson the man or his actual presidency, both of which are pretty heavily fictionalized. Instead, the show works to paint a picture of the American public as a bunch of willfully ignorant simpletons who just want a big strong leader to come along and make the tough decisions for them. And what’s fascinating about this idea isn’t so much how accurate it is, but how central it is to basically every ideology’s political vision, including the moderates. Actually, especially the moderates.

I saw the show a few weeks back, but I got to thinking about this after I read this article, in which Matthew Yglesias looks at how terrible our politics is at reflecting the actual mood of the country. His argument, basically, is that politicians’ big mistake is assuming that voters want change — “What people want, overwhelmingly, is a politician who’ll promise not to do anything.”

A slightly more nuanced explanation would probably be that people aren’t terribly consistent about what they say they want. People want to reduce the deficit, but don’t particularly want to raise taxes or cut spending enough to actually make the math work. People want cheaper health care, but don’t want to dramatically change the system that makes it so expensive.

Two very telling blink-and-you-miss-them moments in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson come at this idea from different angles. In one, a couple who moved to Florida after Jackson’s conquest of the territory bemoan his brutality but remark on how much they like the weather — “It’s great what he did, but we don’t condone it.” In the second, Jackson is asking a random citizen whether he should force the Native Americans out of Tennessee, and she tells him, “It’s not my job to deal with this!”

On their merits, these are very different ideas — the first is basically the dream of every politician who believes that history will vindicate them, while the second runs close to my own impression of why direct democracy is crazy. But both moments basically frame the argument for elite control of the government: Most people don’t have particularly detailed positions on most issues, and would rather someone else worried about that stuff for them. Oh, and even if your policies are morally abhorrent, people can learn to like them if it involves them getting a pony.

This is the major problem with populism, since indulging people’s knee-jerk reactions to an issue can take you to some pretty abhorrent places. It also gives you license to ignore anyone who doesn’t agree with you, because The People — at least, the people you care about — are behind you.

Moderates, though, tend to make the exact same mistake by doing the opposite — assuming that, if both extremes hate their ideas, that must mean that it’s good. That’s how we end up with deficit-reduction plans and health care laws whose unpopularity is supposed to be a virtue: You take a bunch of ideas that half the country hates, combine them with some other ideas that the other half hates, create a product that everyone hates and then call it a victory.

All of that can be justifiable if there’s an actual problem that needs solving. Health care costs, for instance, really were getting out of control. But there’s a perfectly sensible argument for not fixing the deficit right now. So one of the big challenges of governing involves knowing what issues really need to be addressed in the first place, and when to tell your voters no.

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