Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster, concedes that Americans tend to be skeptical of activist government, tend to believe that government is not able to solve big problems and is suspicious of the distribution of rewards and resources. This is the culmination of a 40-years-long conservative philosophical ascendency that has shifted public opinion to the right. At the same time, government's size and reach has grown significantly. This disjunction is at the heart of the Democratic Party's long-term dilemma, which is that Americans are increasingly isolated from and not cognizant of the role government plays in their lives and are more skeptical, generically, of that role.
But there is another axis, too, one that keeps Reagan Democrats Democrats and one that, thanks to the economic turbulence of the last three years, has grown increasingly prominent: The poor and undeserving may be historical scapegoats, but to the extent that government has been helping anyone as of late, it's been helping the big guys — the corporations and large institutions. And it's not just government. It seems like all of society is arrayed in a way that benefits those who least need it.
When Mitt Romney blames the mooching 47 percent for depending on government welfare and for assimilating an entitlement mentality, many Americans who would otherwise believe him see people like Mitt Romney benefiting from tax breaks and tax havens, see rapacious companies moving overseas, see government bank bailouts endorsed by both parties, see Wall Street bankers pocketing billion-dollar bonuses and more.
In the latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll, more Americans say their goal is to be secure and stable than it is to own a company or be wealthy. In fact, they say they'd rather be in a job that provides stability than one that provides room for promotion. Even still, more than half believe that social and economic mobility is possible.
The same poll shows that fewer Americans blame immigration for their failure to get ahead, and don't believe Romney at all when he suggests that American sluggishness is related to an entitlement mentality. In fact, only 34 percent of Americans say that they think Americans are working less hard. Eighty percent say that countries that send jobs overseas are making it harder to get head, 71 percent blame companies for raising their prices, and 62 percent say that "too many" gains are going to the richest Americans. That's a little more than the percentage of Americans who blame taxes and regulation (58 percent).
In this election, that second axis is pulsing so strongly and Republicans have elected a candidate who is emblematic of the problem, and cannot provide a sense of comfort that he gets that his type may be part of the problem. This may be the real reason why Mitt Romney hasn't been resonating, why Barack Obama, despite all of the other resentments held against him, is holding his own among blue-collar whites (women in particular), and is on a trajectory to victory.
It was also the argument that Obama failed to make last night, giving Romney his opening.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
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