"Throw the bums out" is the slogan of the year. By "bums," voters seem to mean "tax and spend" Democrats who want to impose a liberal, even "socialist" concept of big government on the American people.

And without a doubt, voters are deeply distressed as the election season reaches a climax. In the latest Washington Post/Kaiser Foundation/Harvard poll, three in five say the country is headed in the wrong direction. An ABC/Yahoo survey finds 85 percent angry or dissatisfied with the economy. USA Today reports that "Americans are having a crisis of confidence in their government."

But below the surface, this picture of the American mood is oversimplified. A close reading of recent polls shows that voters have a far more complex view of government than tea party slogans would suggest. Americans do not hate government in all its forms. In fact, they favor government intervention in many areas of public life. People detest incompetent government, wasteful government, unresponsive government and arrogant government. Most Americans, at their core, are pragmatists, not ideologues. They don't want to abolish government; they want to improve it.

Frank Newport, head of the Gallup Poll, compares Washington to your local cable company. You want lower rates, more choices and better service, but you still want a dozen movie channels and every NFL game every Sunday. You're willing to pay the bill if you get fair value in return.

Of course, voters can be inconsistent, selfish, even wildly hypocritical. They want government benefits but don't want to pay the taxes that support them. And while they cheer denunciations of government deficits and pork-barrel projects, 57 percent tell the Post they want their member of Congress to "fight for more government spending in your own congressional district in order to create jobs." As the Post concludes: "The poll shows that voters are deeply ambivalent about the role government should play in their lives an uncertainty that makes it nearly impossible for politicians to effectively navigate what are very choppy political waters."

Unfortunately, too many politicians respond to this ambivalence by pandering to voters' unrealistic expectations. Republicans recently advanced a "Pledge to America" that promises to cut taxes and reduce the deficit at the same time a total impossibility. Democrats boasted that their trillion-dollar healthcare bill was "paid for," but they have repeatedly failed to make the cost-cutting decisions that would finance new benefits.

Still, there is another way to look at this picture. The key is competence, and health care is the best example. Bloomberg found strong support for many of the specific changes adopted by Congress: preventing insurance companies from denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions, or letting parents keep children on their policies until age 26. And yet almost half echo Republican demands that the bill be repealed. Why? They like the measure's aims, but they doubt government's ability to implement them efficiently.

The Post/Kaiser/Harvard poll points to a similar conclusion. Forty-three percent give the federal government a grade of D or F. Yet majorities want even more government involvement in health care and education. Even tea party supporters want Washington to keep guarding the environment and combating poverty.

USA Today calculates that only one-in-five Americans share the "government-is-the-problem mantra" advanced by staunch conservatives, while a similar number espouse "the government-is-the-solution message" favored by orthodox liberals. The rest of us are somewhere in the middle. We have a healthy suspicion of government and an appreciation for its limits. We know that the free market is the best way to create jobs, expand opportunity, and promote prosperity. We know that rule makers and social engineers in Washington often get it wrong and wind up reducing flexibility and freedom.

But we also know that government, at its best, can improve the lives of every American. We are a more just and equal country because of federally mandated civil-rights laws. Food stamps, unemployment benefits and aid to local governments all financed by Washington have alleviated the economic distress of countless families.

After the experience of the past two years, can anyone plausibly argue that Wall Street should police itself? That offshore oil drilling should be less regulated? That mine safety should be left to owners and operators?

What most Americans demand and deserve is a government that spends wisely, that chooses carefully, that responds to the needs of ordinary citizens, not outsized contributors. They want value for their hard-earned tax dollars. They want a government that works.