Daniel W. Drezner

The American mass public as unindicted co-conspirator [UPDATED]

Paul Krugman’s column today has been getting a lot of love from the left side of the blogosphere, but I’m not sure how grounded it is in reality.  Krugman’s argument is that the messes of the developed world are the fault of elites and not the mass public: The fact is that what we’re experiencing ...

Paul Krugman’s column today has been getting a lot of love from the left side of the blogosphere, but I’m not sure how grounded it is in reality. 

Krugman’s argument is that the messes of the developed world are the fault of elites and not the mass public:

The fact is that what we’re experiencing right now is a top-down disaster. The policies that got us into this mess weren’t responses to public demand. They were, with few exceptions, policies championed by small groups of influential people — in many cases, the same people now lecturing the rest of us on the need to get serious….

President George W. Bush cut taxes in the service of his party’s ideology, not in response to a groundswell of popular demand — and the bulk of the cuts went to a small, affluent minority.

Similarly, Mr. Bush chose to invade Iraq because that was something he and his advisers wanted to do, not because Americans were clamoring for war against a regime that had nothing to do with 9/11. In fact, it took a highly deceptive sales campaign to get Americans to support the invasion, and even so, voters were never as solidly behind the war as America’s political and pundit elite.

Finally, the Great Recession was brought on by a runaway financial sector, empowered by reckless deregulation. And who was responsible for that deregulation? Powerful people in Washington with close ties to the financial industry, that’s who. Let me give a particular shout-out to Alan Greenspan, who played a crucial role both in financial deregulation and in the passage of the Bush tax cuts — and who is now, of course, among those hectoring us about the deficit.

So it was the bad judgment of the elite, not the greediness of the common man, that caused America’s deficit.

Hey, you know what would help assess this hypothesis?  Some actual data. 

First, let’s consider the tax cut question.  Take a gander at this chart from Gallup

Gee, as it turns out, the public did seem to think a tax cut was a swell idea around about 2001.  Indeed, the problem the American public had was that they were skeptical the tax cuts would actually come to pass:

Although the public has not been asked specifically about the Gramm/Zeller bill, a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted January 5-7, 2001, showed that over half — 52% — of Americans favor Bush’s tax plan, based on what they have read or heard. However, the public is generally pessimistic about the new administration’s ability to actually pass the tax cut — only 38% of Americans think Bush will be able to pass such legislation (50% do not and 12% have no opinion on the matter).

Now, to be fair, the Gallup data also suggests that tax cuts were not the #1 priority of Americans in 2001.  Based on that chart, however, it seems pretty clear that there was a fair degree of enthusiasm for tax cuts.

Similarly, on Iraq, again, the Gallup poll data shows that a majority of Americans supported “invading Iraq with U.S. ground troops in an attempt to remove Saddam Hussein from power.”  The numbers between June 2002 and March 2003 fluctuate between a low of 53% and a high of 64%, but every poll demonstrated majority support for the policy option. 

Krugman may or may not be correct on the financial deregulation question, though I suspect the best answer on that issue is that the public was rationally ignorant about the issue.  And for the record I think he is right on the Europe side of the equation. 

The point of this post is not to let American policy elites off the hook.  The point is that Krugman’s notion of a passive, innocent American public doesn’t wash either.  Political leaders only implement the kinds of Big Policies like the Bush tax cuts and Iraq invasion if there’s an American public that’s copacetic with these policies.  The majority of the American public supported the key policy decisions that led to the current macroeconomic situation, and suggesting otherwise is tendentious. 

Am I missing anything? 

UPDATE:  Kevin Drum thinks I am missing something:  public support for tax cuts/invading Iraq were constants, and it took the Bush administration to execute these policies: 

Despite this broad support, nobody was crying out for either huge tax cuts or invading Iraq until George Bush and the rest of the GOP started talking them up. Without that, the public would have continued to vaguely think that taxes were too high and Saddam Hussein was a bad guy before switching the TV to Monday Night Football and forgetting about it.

It’s true that public support was probably necessary in order to pass the Bush tax cuts and invade Iraq. But the polling evidence is pretty clear that it was far from sufficient. Nothing about public opinion changed in 2001. The only thing that changed was the occupant of the Oval Office. The public isn’t blameless in all this, but the polling evidence makes it pretty clear that it was a minor player.

I completely agree with Drum about the “necessary but not sufficient” quality of American public opinion.  I’m not sure “minor player” is correct, however.  First, bear in mind that George W. Bush was re-elected rather handily after implementing both of these policy choices, so it’s not like the public was experiencing buyer’s remorse in 2000. 

Second, in my recollection, politicians in democracies have a strong incentive to translate majority public sentiments into concrete policies that favor their particular political coalition.  George W. Bush took a popular sentiment for tax cuts and ran with it; Barack Obama took a popular sentiment to address health care and ran with it.  Neither outcome was quite in line with the public sentiment that animated it, but that’s public policy for you. 

To reiterate, I’m not disagreeing with Krugman that policy elites must shoulder the burden for their mistakes; I’m just pushing back against his implied argument that the American public is blameless — hence the “unindicted co-conspirator” language.   

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. He blogged regularly for Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2014. Twitter: @dandrezner

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