JACK SPENCER: Perceptions — Who sees who as the problem

A recent conversation set the gray cells churning. Are there hidden areas of agreement between the political left, the political right and all points in between?

Could what initially seems to be core differences, in reality be no more than a matter of perception? Outwardly, the chance of finding any common ground seems slim. But sometimes a closer look can be revealing. Some disagreements may be more form than substance?

The terms “way too conservative” and “deep in right field” were frequently used. Clearly the person speaking saw himself as neither a conservative nor a liberal. Almost everyone believes they're sitting nearer the 50 yard line than they really are. He was observing that conservatives are out of step, out of touch and generally a rather irksome minority.

Then there was a surprise. After the topic wandered into the realm of taxes, he said the following: “Everyone knows we ought to go with some sort of flat tax, but the rich won't ever allow that to happen.”

Here it was once again. Someone who vigorously portrayed himself as separate from those on the political right had unwittingly displayed exactly the opposite. This happens far more frequently than many would believe. The gulf between left and right cannot be defined with simplistic lists of stances on specific issues. Perceptions, at times very subtle perceptions, play a very large role.

A flat tax is a percentage charge applied equally to everyone, regardless of their income level, investments, or other financial characteristics. In our modern times, support and promotion of a flat tax comes almost exclusively from the political right.

In spite of that, the person involved in the above-mentioned conversation expressed his support for a flat tax. Hearing only this, one might have thought he was a die-hard conservative. Yet he had only moments earlier bemoaned the “far right: as being so far out of touch that he wanted nothing to do with them.

Is this inconsistent? Maybe it was not as inconsistent as it seems.

Unraveling the puzzle requires reading the conclusion of his statement. He said: “Everyone knows we ought to go with some sort of flat tax, but the rich won't ever allow that to happen.”

Peculiar as it might appear, the key to understanding his political leanings was not his support for the flat tax. A more telling guide was his perception of who is to blame for preventing a flat tax from being implemented.

Those on the political right would not identify “the rich” as the primary obstacle to a flat tax. To them, the primary obstacle would be the government class.

For conservatives, the pigs that race for the goodies that government hands out aren't the primary problem. From their perspective, government is at fault for offering the goodies in the first place.

A flat tax would virtually eliminate corporate welfare. That's why the odds against it ever being enacted are overwhelming. At least that's the way it's perceived on the conservative side of the fence. To them, the large corporations and the wealthy aren't the source, they're just the recipients.

Corporate welfare is one of government's greatest sources of influence. Denying tax breaks to some and handing them out to others is a role government cherishes. It is an obvious, though often under-rated, device for government control. At its most basic level, it is government saying - “Let's cut a deal; do what we want, and we'll give you what you want.”

Take that ability away from government, and government would begin looking a lot more like the founding fathers envisioned. But the current system is so entrenched that it would probably take a major upheaval to undo it.

Barely beneath government's highest echelons there are thousands of people deeply immersed in playing the influence game. These are the lobbyists, bureaucrats and other power brokers whose very livelihoods depend on keeping the status quo. What they have to sell is their expertise at playing the game.

sually they can demand and get very high prices for their services.

Arguably, the lobbyists and power brokers should actually be considered as part of government. In fact, there is justification in seeing these unelected game players as the most enduring elements of the government class. After all, they're the ones who stay put, while the various politicians come and go.

None of this is how our government was supposed to operate. Certainly those who drafted our constitution understood the temptations of power. Above all, they were realists who tried to create a system that could withstand its inevitable misuse. However, it is doubtful they foresaw government by open bribery running amok to its current extents.

Here is the enticing question. How do the voters view all of this?

It seems likely that voters, across the board, dislike it intensely. All of the behind the scenes bargaining is something voters of all stripes could agree to oppose. Liberals supposedly favor increasing government influence. But when the topic is approached from the standpoint of high level wheeling and dealing, they tend to be as outraged as the conservatives.

So why does the practice continue?

Let's suggest, the problem is one of perception. Half of the voters identify those who pursue the favors as the culprits, while the other half lays blame on a government for handing the favors out.

As long as the voters' wrath remains split in two, there is no chance of bringing about real change.

Increasingly, we see politics becoming less about understanding and more about technological manipulation. There appears to be little interest in searching for areas of agreement. At times it seems to come down to which side can turn out the largest number of angry voters.

However, there are other ways to approach political communication. Undoubtedly dissecting voters' perceptions is worthwhile politically regardless of where it leads Understanding one's audience is always an advantage.

Admittedly, this theory is a bit dicey. But a closer evaluation of voter perceptions might lead to the discovery of unexpected common ground. For instance – a well- communicated message that targets the favor- seekers and the favor-givers equally could potentially pay big political dividends.

On this front, a breakthrough is long past due.

Jack Spencer is Capitol Affairs Specialist for Capitol Confidential, an online newsletter associated with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy (MCPP). MCPP provides policy analysis. The political analysis represented in this column does not necessarily reflect the views of the Mackinac Center.