Given the place of preeminence the pursuit of happiness holds in American culture, it is perhaps not surprising that contentment seems to be at the height of political virtue.
One only needs to peruse the most recent spate of public opinion polls to see the degree to which political energy is focused on individual contentment. Job approval of both the president and of Congress is tracked on a weekly, if not a daily, basis by nearly every major polling firm. The tracking poll routinely conducted by Reuters/Ipsos even gauges public approval of the president by an extensive list of relevant issues:
But what does data like this actually reveal?
American politics prizes efficacy; this is the mark by which the health of democracy—a form of government at least colloquially understood to exist primarily to reflect the will of the people—is judged. Efficacy means individuals feel their voice is heard, which, by extension, presumably means they see their way of thinking reflected in the actions taken by political leaders. Approval ratings, therefore, are a good metric of how happy citizens are with government.
But do high levels of satisfaction correlate with good government? Conversely, do low levels of satisfaction correlate with bad government.?
That approval is not a good metric of government is evidence by the table (pictured above) from the Reuters/Ipsos poll. Various facets of economic policy do not reflect similar approval attitudes. On the back of the passage of the GOP tax bill, numerous corporations announced bonuses or wage increases for their employees, thus contributing to short-term economic boons.
It should follow, then, that those who approve of Trump’s handling of the economy also approve of his handling of taxes. Yet, as the data shows, this is not the case; though a plurality approved of how Trump is handling the economy, a majority disapproved of his handling of taxes.
The question is: does this cognitive dissonance matter? There is a very tired platitude that politics is perception. While this might be a poor mantra for substantive political reform, it is an important factor in considering the amount of deference politicians give to the feelings of their constituents.
In some cases, what appears to be cognitive dissonance may be something entirely different. A possible explanation for the disparate feelings of those surveyed by Reuters/Ipsos in regards to issues of taxation and the economy is that they come from different constituencies. The Trump tax cuts were not truly individual income tax cuts; they slashed corporate tax rates and, by changing certain deductions, shifted the bulk of the federal revenue burden from business owners to individuals. Those feeling the brunt of this surely had vastly different opinions from business owners, or from employees of businesses who passed on the federal government’s largess, on the subject of taxation, even if they appreciate the general upward trend of the economy.
Herein lies another problem with holding efficacy up as a political virtue: it promotes the idea that the American public is one solid bloc of people, all in lockstep with each other’s opinions on how government should behave.
In reality, the polity is a loosely-connected mass of contradictory needs and viewpoints. Any questions touching upon political efficacy or the contentment of voters therefore ought to be caveated: Efficacious according to whom? Happiness in reference to what?
Polls, which create an amalgam voter based on census data and statistical algorithms encourage the fallacious notion that one person’s opinions can be substituted for another’s so long as the right mathematical conditions are met. But reality belies the wisdom of using any conclusions as a basis for judging government.
That citizens are happy is important. Even in less democratic governments, perceptions of fairness and efficacy create a society more likely to pay taxes and accept the short-term setbacks that regularly account on account of the simple fact that life is not stable. However, particularly in a country like America, that orders its governmental system around protection of individual rights, the people bear the burden of their own happiness. Self-government is the keystone of America’s democratic architecture. Opinion polling encourages thinking that defaults on this. Instead of focusing on issues in localities over which they have control, the weight of happiness is shifted onto the actions of external factors, namely the actions of federal politicians. This is something of an infinite loop of misery: citizens have little control over how federal politicians act and can only become more and more frustrated the longer political strife lasts.
Also published on Medium.