What do we really want?

I’m becoming more and more tuned into how different our rhetoric is from our actions. It could be that the sense that we have about what people want simply isn’t true about the majority of people, but it also could be that we’re really bad at articulating what we want, so we say we want one thing, but then we make another thing happen. And I’m not talking about some clear misunderstandings of the topics or the questions, like in this great clip from a West Wing episode. I’m talking about the failure to articulate what we really want.

I’ve thought about this conflict between what we say and what we do many times before. The most obvious example is somebody who says they don’t want to eat that last piece of candy, but they eat it anyway. They say they don’t want it, and a part of them might not really want it, but then they eat it. That behavior, to me, is the test of which won: the not wanting to eat it (that was verbalized) or the wanting to eat it (which was expressed).

I was thinking about this again this morning, while talking with my wife about what people want when it comes to government. We have this sense that people are unhappy with the gridlock in Washington. It’s a common theme on the news, and there’s polling data that suggests that it’s not just because of a narrow focus, but that being unhappy with gridlock is a consistent thing among Americans. A Gallup poll in 2013, for example, asked over 1400 national adults about issues related to Congress and government. This poll found that 78% of respondents (from both parties) were unhappy with Congress, and a majority said that inaction/partisan gridlock was a reason behind their disapproval of Congress. This was shared by republicans and democrats, 54% and 65% of which, respectively, said that inaction/partisan gridlock was a reason they weren’t happy with Congress.

That’s what they say, but do they mean it, and does their voting behavior give us a different answer? I think it does. As much as people say they’re tired of the gridlock, and their tired of Congress being unable to pass laws (what Congress does), we voters keep sending people to Congress who actually run on their desire to produce gridlock. This seems especially true of republicans, at least recently, who seek election by saying that they’ll go to Congress and fight to stop the other party from passing laws they want passed. We say we don’t like gridlock, but maybe we only don’t like it when it gets in the way of laws we like. If we went back in time, and imagined Obamacare in its early stages, how many republicans would have bad things to say about gridlock if that gridlock prevented Obamacare from passing? Probably not many. Democrats would, I imagine, be very upset with the obstructionist moves from the right, and would complain about the gridlock. But, in that case, creating gridlock is exactly what people were sent to Washington to do, at least those who were sent by republicans. The same is true when the GOP is in control and democrats elect people who will fight against the GOP agenda, creating gridlock, thereby stopping the GOP from passing laws that the democrats don’t like.

So why is it that dislike of gridlock comes off so universally in polling? The distaste for it is bipartisan, even when one half (depending on the issue) really wants the gridlock. The easy answer is that people don’t know what they want, but I think that’s a bit too easy. I think we are simply better at framing things we want differently from things we don’t want. One man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. One man’s obstructionist is another’s only defense against a hostile agenda. I don’t know if it would help if we saw a little more of ourselves in others, and came to understand that we all want obstruction of things we don’t want to happen, and that it’s only when somebody is stopping us from getting what we want that we can think of them as obstructions. I don’t know if that would help, but I think it might. I think it’s a good start.


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