A second example is Obamacare. When Americans are asked for their general take on the Affordable Care Act, it’s grim reading for the White House. In early 2014, for example, Gallup found 41 percent approval and 51 percent disapproval.
But Americans are far more enthusiastic about particular parts of the law. The Kaiser Family Foundation asked people about 11 key provisions of Obamacare, such as creating health-insurance exchanges, banning insurance companies from denying coverage to those with pre-existing conditions, and the individual mandate. They found strong or overwhelming support for 10 out of 11 provisions. The only idea that people didn’t like was the individual mandate. With Obamacare, the whole is evidently worse than the sum of its parts.
And here’s a third example: the federal government. When Americans think of Washington, D.C., as a single entity, they often respond with fear and loathing. Ask people whether they want to cut government spending across the board and three quarters say yes. But ask people whether they want to cut specific programs and support immediately evaporates.
Similarly, public approval for Congress as an overall institution hovers in the 10 to 20 percent range. Many would agree with Mark Twain: “There is no native criminal class except Congress.” Americans, however, are far more generous about their own particular member of Congress—and keep reelecting them.
If Americans see government through a wide-angle lens, they favor the conservative viewpoint. But if they see government close up, people move to the left. When Americans look at the woods, they’re Republican. When they look at the trees, they’re Democrats.
Why is this? It ultimately comes down to the difference between the nation’s ideology and the reality of how people actually live their lives. The United States is a very ideological country with a profound commitment to the founding creed of individual rights and limited government. Americans endlessly debate how to advance this creed but virtually no one questions the core values themselves. Part of being American is to distrust government.
Ask Americans about gun control or Washington in abstract terms, and you’ll hear kneejerk skepticism. People reach for the ideologically correct answer: Big government is bad. But the more you burrow into the weeds of specific programs, the less reflexively anti-government Americans become. Should insurance companies be able to discriminate based on pre-existing conditions? Suddenly, it’s not clear what the ideologically correct answer is, so Americans fall back on common sense—and often favor reasonable regulation. They start sounding less like Ayn Rand, and more like Canadians.
If Americans are Republican in general and Democrat in particular, the two parties might employ very different strategies. The GOP should campaign in poetry, keeping the pitch general and abstract. Democrats should campaign in prose, by focusing on specific government programs and people’s lived reality.