Scott Rasmussen, the pollster, has published a new quick read, In Search of Self-Governance. He recently talked about what he means by the title and what he thinks the title means for American politics with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Is your book title meant to validate my worst fears about Obamacare? Are we no longer self-governed?
SCOTT RASMUSSEN: We haven’t lost yet, but the political class would like to keep moving in that direction.
Voters overwhelmingly opposed the bailouts when they were proposed by the Bush administration. They also opposed the extension of the bailouts beyond banks, the takeover of GM and Chrysler, and the health-care plan. But all were passed. And then they wonder why voters believe no one is listening.
LOPEZ: Is everyone in the D.C. “elite” jaded about democracy? Can you name some who aren’t?
RASMUSSEN: I am sure there are some, but that’s not my crowd, so I don’t know who they are.
LOPEZ: Is In Search of Self-Governance essentially about the tea-party movement?
RASMUSSEN: No. The tea-party movement is tapping into some of the concerns expressed in the book, but the desire for self-governance is as old as America.
LOPEZ: Since they’ve come up, what are you certain you know about the tea-party crowd?
RASMUSSEN: “Certain” is a strong word. I am certain that the tea-party movement is far more significant than the political class believes. I am certain that the tea-party movement cannot be defined precisely. And I am certain that the underlying attitudes driving the tea-party movement will drive American politics for a long time.
LOPEZ: Who is this “political class” you keep talking about? Who belongs to it? Is there something wrong with it?
RASMUSSEN: Membership in the political class is as fuzzy as membership in the tea party, but it generally consists of people who trust politicians more than they trust the general public and people who do not see the federal government as a special-interest group. There is nothing wrong with most people who get sucked into the political class, and many of them can be redeemed — just like Darth Vader eventually came back to the good guys.
I spoke on the self-governance theme recently to a business group. The person after me had a long and successful history in both D.C. and on Wall Street.
His first comment was, “The problem with self-governance is that people are so bad at it. They are just too stupid to govern themselves.” That’s a political-class attitude.
LOPEZ: You write: “How often do we really stop and think about what it means to say that our nation was founded on the belief that we are all ‘created equal and endowed by [our] Creator with certain unalienable Rights’ . . . ?” Short of teaching remedial civics, how do you recommend we encourage that? Are there people you see who do stop and think about that?
RASMUSSEN: We can shift our focus from talking about government to talking about the society that government is supposed to serve.
Some people — especially in conservative and libertarian media circles — talk about limited government as a Holy Grail. But that puts the focus in exactly the wrong place — on the government. Limited government is a means, not an end unto itself.
Let’s put the focus on building a self-governing society that gives each of us the chance to succeed and pursue happiness on our own terms. Let’s consider all the things that go into such a society and recognize that the most important work takes place outside the realm of politics. In such a society, government is one institution among many . . . and it’s an institution that plays a supporting role rather than a leading one.
LOPEZ: How is business a danger to self-governance — beyond the government taking over businesses, that is?
RASMUSSEN: Businesses are a danger to self-governance whenever they turn to government for special favors and protection from consumers or competitors. Businesses that compete in the marketplace and serve their customers well are a boon to self-governance.
LOPEZ: Where do you see this “search for self-governance” going? How does it relate to 2010? To 2012?
RASMUSSEN: Independent voters voted against the party in power in 2006 and 2008. Even after being control shifted, the independent voters continued to vote against the party in power in 2009 and are likely to do so again in 2010. They will keep searching for other options in 2012 while recognizing they may have to settle again for the lesser of two evils. I don’t know where the search will go from there.
It is deeply troubling that just 21 percent of voters believe our government today has the consent of the governed. Fortunately, in America, the politicians aren’t nearly as important as they think they are. Because we can rely on our friends, our neighbors, and our nation’s historic commitment to self-governance, we can be confident about the future.
LOPEZ: You have a list of policy suggestions. Every talk-radio host and commentator seems to. Is that because candidates and parties themselves don’t?
RASMUSSEN: I have a list of policy suggestions because people who read the first draft said it was needed. My purpose was to articulate what I know about the American people and the American experiment rather than to offer a twelve-step solution.
I do believe the steps outlined would shake things up for the better, but they are not a recipe that will magically make the world safe for self-governance. That will take real leadership from someone who understands the problem and will do whatever it takes to put the adults back in charge of the elected politicians.
LOPEZ: How are items like a Taxpayer Disclosure Act — which you suggest — not mere gimmicks?
RASMUSSEN: The Taxpayer Disclosure Act would help people understand the cost of government and enable them to make more informed decisions. Voters dramatically underestimate the amount of taxes they pay. More importantly, giving people information and then giving voters the right to approve all tax increases would restore an important component in our system of checks and balances.
LOPEZ: What’s your most important self-governance-related advice to Republicans?
RASMUSSEN: Protect free-markets and consumer choice rather than big corporations.
LOPEZ: Where do social issues fall in your self-governance framework?
RASMUSSEN: I note how some of the most important work in self-governance takes place in the gap between what is legal and what is acceptable.
LOPEZ: What’s your most important self-governance-related advice to Democrats?
RASMUSSEN: Remember that government of the people and by the people is at least as important as government for the people.
LOPEZ: Do you ever get tired of polling day in and day out?
RASMUSSEN: I have great faith in the wisdom of the American people and believe it is essential for their voices to be heard by the political elite. Still, after each election cycle, I walk away for a bit to recharge the batteries.
LOPEZ: What’s the most important poll number today? What’s the most important question to watch in the coming months?
RASMUSSEN: Support for repeal of the health-care plan.
LOPEZ: Despite all their condescension, what’s the most important poll number the White House is likely taking seriously?
RASMUSSEN: The New York Times Magazine reported how Rahm Emmanuel responded to our first poll showing Scott Brown had a chance in Massachusetts, so I assume they track all election polls. I am sure they watch the job-approval ratings as well.
– Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.