Even for the most experienced political insiders, the federal government’s debate over the looming default deadline broke new ground. The arguments between the Republicans and Democrats displayed a face of American politics that no one really wanted to see, less confront.
Those familiar with the United States’ track record on policy debates, however, shouldn’t be surprised at all. What we learned from the debt ceiling debate isn’t a new, unexpected 21st century challenge that the US government is confronting. It’s an old one, namely that public opinion and participation in the US simply doesn’t matter. The recent debacle in government didn’t reveal this issue, to be clear, it’s just the latest example of a severe democracy deficit that only the American public can address.
We learned exactly what the intellectual culture and mass media wanted the debt ceiling debate to look like. It was framed concisely into what the Huffington Post reported as “ignoring what… people are actually saying in order to create a narrative that these people are upset by the ‘sausage making,’ when what they are actually upset by is the fact that the safety net programs are on the chopping block.”
The general media clearly played its role and made the usual effort to subtly pressure the government by presenting a powerful misrepresentation of public opinion. Too much was at stake for them if the debt ceiling wasn’t raised: markets could collapse and the financial institutions might have some trouble on their hands. The public had its own concerns, which were promptly ignored by CNN and other networks.
Did the public have concerns, and was it following this ‘ordeal’ closely enough to have an articulate opinion on the matter?
According to Gallup, Americans were following this debate prior to its extensive coverage by the media. This means the public had opinions before the media’s irrespective narrative began to chip away at everyone’s attitudes. In May, a majority of Americans (57%) told Gallup they were “closely following the news about ‘discussions’ to raise the U.S. debt ceiling.”
A few important facts that lead to the same conclusion have been almost entirely overlooked. A Washington Post-ABC poll found that despite unremitting corporate propaganda insisting that Washington ‘come together for a deal,’ 78 percent of Americans oppose cutting spending on Medicare as a way to reduce the federal debt. Despite Americans supposedly having a longstanding and historical ‘distrust of government,’ 69 percent disapprove of cuts to Medicaid in the debt ceiling deal. Meanwhile, Gallup was reporting that Americans oppose raising the debt ceiling by a 47 to 19 percent margin.
In stark opposition to claims in the liberal press of ‘shared sacrifice’ being required, the vast majority of Americans were in opposition to almost any sacrifice on their behalf. The public feels a striking disconnect with the federal debt, and it has its reasons.
The New York Times produced a chart near the end of the debt ceiling debate that detailed exactly which ruler’s policies produced the country’s debt problems. It turns out that former President George W. Bush’s policies led to a debt larger than his successor’s by almost 5:1. The former administration’s tax policies that benefitted the rich, massive war spending increases, and excessive discretionary spending contributed to the current budgetary predicament the country is in.
To be clear, the public didn’t support the tax cuts for the wealthy, as evidenced by polls showing that even Republicans are split on the issue. Public support for the war in Afghanistan and occupation of Iraq has been steadily decreasing for four years. Why, then, should the population support cuts to programs and social expenditures that its has consistently supported?
The American majority wasn’t associated with the policies that brought us the so-called ‘debt crisis’ in a post-recessionary period, and it wasn’t associated with creating the recession itself–we know who was responsible for that. An ideological construction, the debt ceiling, has been accurately found by Americans to be a tool of class warfare being used by contemptuous circles of power. The public staunchly refused to sacrifice and make cuts to its welfare, so the government didn’t waste the opportunity.
Its convenient when mainstream commentary and opinion tells the public that shared sacrifice is the answer to the country’s debt problems. When a small fraction of the population has been benefiting enormously at the expense of the public for three decades and the country’s business community is awash with capital, it’s especially convenient. The policy debate over the debt ceiling exemplified how little effect public opinion has on American government, and predictably concluded with a dismal result.
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