Michael Medved

Not that hungry for change

Washington has misread the public. People want problem-solving, not political whiplash.

By Michael Medved

According to the all-but-unchallenged conventional wisdom, the American people feel angry at the status quo and demand dramatic change.

Why, then, do recent polls show public sentiment tilting toward the GOP — the very party that's stubbornly resisting change? And why should so many voters express increasing distrust, and even resentment, of the ruling Democrats who've tried to deliver just the sort of sweeping transformations they thought the people craved? Hope and change, it seems, morphed quickly into fear and retrenchment.

This anomalous shift has less to do with the fickleness of public attitudes, or some sudden and unprecedented ideological awakening, than it does with chronic misinterpretation of popular dissatisfaction during periods of discomfort and depression. The fact that citizens feel worried about the future of the nation doesn't mean they've lost confidence in themselves. By 3 to 1, Americans believe that the nation is headed in the wrong direction, but similarly big majorities express satisfaction with their personal situations and optimism over their prospects.

Private lives not that bad

The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, which has surveyed 1,000 adults almost every day for more than two years, shows that even in the midst of high unemployment and bitter political turmoil, people are pleased with their private progress. From 2008 through 2009, participants' "life evaluations" of their current situation and future expectations rose by more than 5 percentage points. Without exception, every racial group, income level and age cohort showed brightening attitudes, with particularly big improvements among blacks, young adults (18-29) and people of modest means ($24,000 to $48,000 in annual income).

In other words, the endlessly discussed desire for "change" always applied to Washington, or Wall Street, or other far-away forces, but rarely to the daily lives and intimate arrangements of ordinary Americans. We seek change for institutions or for others, but not necessarily for ourselves. We remain overwhelmingly pleased with our jobs, families and neighborhoods, and we expect the best for our children. Big majorities — more than 60% — predict that today's young people will enjoy even better lives than their parents.

This contradiction in public attitudes — with private satisfaction persistently co-existing with grim assumptions about the nation at large — produced the core miscalculation by the White House. President Obama might have pleased the public by transforming some of the big-picture problems so frequently decried in the news media, such as the bitter polarization in Washington, or America's tarnished image in the international community. But he has made little visible progress in altering these distant realities while frightening much of the public about potential change of a far more intimate sort: involving the health care arrangements or tax-and-debt burdens on every American.

The biggest obstacle to public acceptance of the Democrats' plans to uproot and restructure the health care system involved the fact that most people felt pleased with their own medical care and insurance plans. As many as 85% of insured Americans say they like and value their current policies. As long as "ObamaCare" amounted to altering reality for someone else — providing for the uninsured, for instance — it drew strong support. When, however, the public came to suspect that the promised reform would change their own insurance situation, likely raising costs and limiting available treatment, opinion turned decisively against the plan.

Not a green light for the GOP

Republicans may be the immediate beneficiaries of the Democrats' clumsy misinterpretation of the supposed mandate for change, but they run a very real risk of making similar mistakes. Polls show disillusionment and distrust regarding the Obama agenda, but that hardly signals an impassioned appetite for a conservative counterrevolution. If the GOP pledges massive, wrenching, systemic change — cutting back, for instance, on cherished, widely popular government programs on which millions of Americans depend — it will meet the same resistance and skepticism that confronts Obama and his liberal colleagues.

In other words, the people would welcome a concerted effort to "clean up the mess in Washington," but they don't want Washington cleaning up the mess in their private lives because they don't consider their personal status a mess.

Yes, the Democrats miscalculated by underestimating the deeply conservative nature of the American people, but the Republicans may yet miscalculate themselves by interpreting that conservatism as ideological rather than temperamental.

The public wants pragmatic, commonsense, problem-solving leadership more than purist dogmatism of the right or the left. Voters don't yearn for stirring 10-point programs, or radical readjustments of governmental institutions, or definitive demonization and defeat of opponents.

We're conservative in a deeper sense —liking the lives we've built for ourselves and wanting to conserve them from unwelcome interference by overreaching change agents or ideologues. The party that connects with these wholesome, optimistic, emphatically practical instincts most effectively (and respectfully) will not only make big gains in November, but also may soon begin to build the durable governing majority that has been missing in our politics for nearly 30 years.

Syndicated talk radio host Michael Medved is a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors and author of The 5 Big Lies About American Business.

(Change candidate: Then-Sen. Barack Obama campaigning for president in 2008./Alex Wong, Getty Images.)

Michael Medved

Michael Medved's daily syndicated radio talk show reaches one of the largest national audiences every weekday between 3 and 6 PM, Eastern Time. Michael Medved is the author of eleven books, including the bestsellers What Really Happened to the Class of '65?, Hollywood vs. America, Right Turns, The Ten Big Lies About America and 5 Big Lies About American Business
TOWNHALL DAILY: Be the first to read Michael Medved's column. Sign up today and receive Townhall.com daily lineup delivered each morning to your inbox.