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America's Purple People Problem

Gabor Steingart, who astutely covers Washington for the German mag Der Spiegel, has written an interesting meditation on the wishy-washiness of the American electorate. As a result of our two-party, either-or proposition, we Americans are apparently suffering from a civic form of multiple-personality disorder--one that leads "the desires of American citizens [to] contradict their fundamental convictions." Like the voters who don't want Hillary Clinton to win, but neither wish her to lose, the entire country has no idea what it wants out of government. Steingart observes:

The overwhelming majority of Americans are troubled by the social injustices in their country. They dream of a nation in which bridges do not collapse and with a school system in which drug dealers are not the main authority figures. No one doubts that, politically at least, they want to see these shortcomings corrected.

And yet these very same voters are not allowing politicians to fulfill their wishes. When it comes to putting these ideas into practice, Americans quickly drop their idealistic gazes. Their eyes begin to narrow until they resemble the slits in a piggy bank.

Those on the left have expensive wishes and no qualms about calling for a strong government. Meanwhile, those on the right want more personal freedom and desire nothing more deeply than a government that fades into the background.

I'm willing to concede Steingart's broad sketching of liberal and conservative ideologies (after all, we are not afforded nearly as much spectral diversity as within Germany's parliamentary system). I'm also willing to bet that Americans in states both red and blue generally tend toward Democratic mayors, city councils and school boards (who keep the trash taken out), while they prefer the large-scale decision-making (primarily, the burdens of taxation and defense) to fall upon Republican governors or commanders-in-chief. (If anyone has more concrete informatics, please share.) But is it really, as Steingart hints, a matter of dollars and cents?

Writing in the Times, Eduardo Porter made the argument that it is racial resentment that prevents full-throated public support for a so-called social safety net; Barack Obama also said as much in his Philadelphia speech on race. Unfortunately, that seems a plausible explanation. But is it not also America's timeworn, up-by-the-bootstraps mythology that drives--for example--John McCain's chilly statements on the current housing crisis? (McCain, recall, advised the 80 million Americans at risk of foreclosure to get another job and stop whining.) Robust individualism has done this country a world of good. But it's the same spirit that prompts majority support for tax cuts on the upper one percent of earners, keeps property taxes as the metric for school funding, and provoked Glenn Beck's odious comment on teen pregnancy Tuesday: "When are we going to say, sucks to be you, you made a mistake?"

No matter the cause, it's useful to see a foreign journalist try to capture the psychosis within the American body politic. And to those who vehemently disagree with my liberal bias, take comfort in Steingart's conclusion:

Both fringe groups live in harmony with themselves, because there are no contradictions between the means and the end. They are not plagued by self-doubt. Extremists, it appears, are happier.

--Dayo Olopade