Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.
Saturday, February 23, 2019

As part of the How We Value Government series, demanding that both Republicans and Democrats be forced to outline a real vision of government instead of proposing vague cuts or making specific defenses.

There’s an old rule of thumb about Americans’ attitudes toward government that’s no less true for being familiar: Americans are “operational liberals” but “philosophical conservatives,” the political scientists Lloyd A. Free and Hadley Cantril concluded in their 1967 book The Political Beliefs of Americans, based on their analysis of dozens of public opinion surveys. That is, we favor the specific services government provides, but we’re distrustful on an abstract level and respond favorably to attacks on “big government.”

This small insight was true even at the peak of the Great Society and the era of “liberal consensus,” and it fits as an explanation for much of the back-and-forth of American conceptions of government ever since. Whether it accurately represents public opinion or not, it’s a good guide to the behavior of actors in the political process. Conservatives attack “government” as an abstract concept that has little to do with our real lives and mostly creates wasteful excess benefiting either bureaucrats themselves or other people. Liberals respond by trying to show the harsh reality of cuts to particular programs, especially safe ones that reach large constituencies. In 1994 and 1995, for example, voters were first drawn to Newt Gingrich’s promises to eliminate entire cabinet departments, but as soon as the idea of cutting government was converted to the reality of shuttering national parks and slashing Medicare, the political tides turned swiftly in the other direction. George W. Bush won reelection in 2004 talking vaguely about the need to change Social Security, yet given the opportunity to put such a plan in action, he saw the public lose faith so quickly that he never found a single congressional sponsor for the legislation. Even Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980 in what we still see as a critical moment in shifting attitudes toward government, largely backed off from that agenda after the 1981 budget cuts and his own ham-fisted attack on Social Security.

Mitt Romney’s announcement recently that he would eliminate several large government programs, but wouldn’t name them lest he face political criticism, represents the conservative tactical approach to Cantril-Free perfectly. (Except they usually remember not to read the stage directions.)

The struggle over government thus often takes the form of this push-pull between the abstract, where anti-government conservatism reigns, and the specific, where people seem to appreciate government. The result, until recently, has been a happy dance through which both sides achieve their short-term objectives: Conservatives win their share of elections, which they can use to push through tax cuts, without worrying much about the size of government, while liberals get their turns at power and avoid major cuts to programs. The Cantril-Free paradox has even generated new paradoxes of its own. Conservatives often expand government as political insurance, albeit carelessly, as in the creation of the Medicare Part D prescription drug program in 2003. Liberals and Democrats are more likely to cut programs (such as the Medicare cuts of 1993 and 2010), both because they take government more seriously and in the hopes that showing a commitment to cutting waste and improving people’s experience of government will ameliorate their abstract opposition.

But what’s missing from this well-rehearsed dance is any effort to force the question, to make a real choice about what we want government to do. That missing element has been devastating in the last few years, when it seemed impossible to convince the public or Congress that an emphatic government effort was the only way to prevent a long and debilitating recession.

  • Share this on Google+0
  • Share this on Linkedin0
  • Share this on Reddit0
  • Print this page
  • 10

8 responses to “Forcing Both Parties To Get Specific About What Government Should Do”

  1. montanabill says:

    All government entitlement programs are welfare, including Social Security and Medicare, both of which were expanded to provide payments to people who never paid into them. And, exactly what statistics does the author have that shows those programs not headed for disaster? One more question. The Republicans have put forth a budget that provides some level of specificity. Where is the Democrat budget? There can be no resolution as long as one party continues to hide their intentions while using demagoguery on the other.

    • lexi001 says:

      Welfare? Really? I myself have paid into both of these programs for 50 years. Excuse me, I resent anyone telling me this is welfare. I have paid my own way since I am 14 years old. I raised two children financially and emotionally alone, no help from WELFARE! Don’t put the entire country in one box, they don’t fit! How come no one ever gives a count of the people who die before ever collecting from either? How come on one counts the illegals who indeed have false SS#’s and have all of the taxes that everyone has taken out of their paychecks, but will never be able to collect on them? YOU receive government assistant at some level as does EVERYONE. Yet, you people never discuss the side you like about government give-aways. Congress has STOLEN from the social security fund. That money was never supposed to be touched. Now were broke? Well then, let’s punish the citizens. The fraud in both medicare and social security goes on and on. Who commits most of the medicare fraud? Doctors and lawyers. Now that’s broke too? Let’s make the citizens pay for that too. You people make it all sound so linear. It’s hardly that. It’s pretty murky and my guess is that’s the way they want it, so people like you can buy into this “welfare mentality”. Crimus, you all talk like anyone who doesn’t agree with the GOP is on welfare!! There is a pervasive mean-spirited, selfish, nasty attitude that emanates from the right. I’m sorry if you don’t believe that there is a real need to take care of the less fortunate. I have paid my way, tax-wise and every other way with no help from ANYONE. However, I have no problem with my measly pay being taxed a little higher to insure this country doesn’t turn into two classes; rich and poor. I’ve survived so well by being able to attain middle-class. Not everyone has the same opportunities, nor the intellect to do that. Maybe we should list them as the first to be brought before the supposed “death panels” Obamacare will bring? As for the Republicans putting forth a budget with specificity, really? Doesn’t matter that it impinges on the less fortunate, once again, so long as they have a plan?

      • montanabill says:

        You didn’t read close enough. I said those programs were ‘expanded’ to cover people who hadn’t paid into them. That was not the original intent of those programs. As for people who die early, there are people who live longer. Taxes are, by far, the less efficient way to help anyone and they don’t have a thing to do with making rich or poor classes, except maybe moving more people down to the poor class. Yes, the Republicans have presented a plan. You have not read it and you certainly don’t have any real knowledge of what it proposes except what you have heard from the demagogues, yet you attack it and don’t wonder why the Democrats don’t put forth a real plan.

        • rustacus21 says:

          … the question is, forcing them to elaborate on what ‘Government Should Do…’ NOT what it spends. 1stly, WE, the people, are the ‘Government.” 2ndly, if we say ‘spend’, the government damn well BETTER spend!!! & spend ‘FRUGALLY!!!’ U’r a Conservative, I’ll assume, from U’r commentary here (& elsewhere) & I’ve always wanted to know: if Liberal/Progressives are the ‘tax & spenders’, what do U, a Conservative, call Republican Conservatives who’ve held the W.H. & Congressional majorities, between 1980 & now? W/ea Conservative-dominated chamber, there has been nothing but confusion, chaos, disaster & mayhem. Liberal/Progressives on the other hand, have committed to giving the American people what they demand, culminating, progressively, to the 2 magnificent terms of President Bill Clinton. Ea Liberal/Progressive chamber has built a progressively better nation over time. Conversely, ea Republican administration has done its best to destroy what Liberal/Progressives have crafted, in conjunction WITH the wishes & will of the American citizenry. There’s more to government – & life, in fact, than money… What say ye?…

          • montanabill says:

            I say that Republicans who spend money this country doesn’t have are just like Democrats who spend money this country doesn’t have. We the people better fess up to the fact that we have asked our government put our kids, grandkids and great grandkids into debt. A debt that could well end very badly for them. Basically, I see the debate as one where each side is offering a solution to reducing that debt. The Democrats seem to want to spend more. The President implies we could pay for it just by passing his Buffett Rule and tax the rich more. What he doesn’t say is that the possible increase in revenue would be $4 billion a year. About enough to pay for one day’s deficit spending. The Republicans want to encourage businesses to grow and expand to generate more money for economy which would increase overall tax revenues. And they want to cut some spending. The tricky part is that, although there are thousands of places to cut spending, each one will yell like a stuck pig that they are vital services. I personally like the plan that stops all the automatic increases in spending and cuts one cent of every dollar spent. Then next year, cut one more cent. Surely every department could manage with a 1% cut.
            I have no assurance that Republicans can do what they say, but I know that more spending will not reduce the deficit or our debt any more than my borrowing on one credit card to pay another will get me out of debt.

      • So you think the armed forces are welfare (I quote – “every government program..”)? You claim that montanabill has not read your post carefully – your post was a right wing political slogan. The Ryan budget cuts 4.3 trillion in taxes over ten years, making our budget problems worse, and then does not say what is going to be cut, because Ryan is too much of a coward to tell people what they are going to lose inn exchange. Is this what you mean by “some specificity”?

  2. rustacus21 says:

    I began thinking as I read thru this article, that the (Republican) Great Depression was an turning point, that effectively brought the nation & the world, into the ‘modern age’. We came to the realization that no indiv, demographic, class of American can act w/either independence, NOR indifference, toward another. Prez Franklin Roosevelt articulated the most precise intent/meaning of the Constitution, since his cousin, Teddy or Abraham Lincoln. Serious history in any case. Try as they may, Conservatives have since, tried to continually divide us against ourselves & destroy what has come to symbolize ‘civilization’ at its finest. But to no avail. As is pointed out here, whenever attacks on the ‘Social Safety Net’ have occurred, the success is only in the ‘propaganda’ used to sell it. Now, the ‘propaganda’ is being aimed at 2days younger generations – those Americans born after 1970, who have been DEPRIVED of the rich history & tradition of the Liberal/Progressive initiatives surrounding the Constitution. This is intentional, of course, in order to destroy awareness of such. As Conservatives despise Democracy, fail to understand its intent & meaning, shows how hell-bent on returning the nation to a pre-1776, monarchical, elitist-dominated, corporate-controlled way of life for the 99%, while they regularly active ‘gate-keepers’ like Reagan, Nixon, the Bush’s & now, Romney, to ensure abundance & wealth remain ‘exclusive’ property of the 1%. 4 those constantly ???’ing ‘spending’, ‘entitlements’, ‘accountability’, or just what is THE ‘welfare’ of the State, we should all B reminded of what it was like w/out a Constitution – a ‘voice’ of/for the common citizen. There’s no misunderstanding about what the Constitution obliges WE citizens to do, in coordination of sane, comprehensive & ‘EQUITABLE’ governance & GOVERNMENT! We all enjoy in its fruits b/c we ALL are contributors to it. W/each Conservative administration however, their ‘endings’ usually involves mia culpas over how ‘wrong’ they were & how they ‘miscalculated so badly’, misinterpreting plain, clearly understandable definitions & numerical equations that a 10 year old can EASILY comprehend. Yet, we walk off, as we did in ’08, heads hung low (Conservative voters anyway), dejected over what took place 2001-2008 & surveying the wreckage, began casting blame @Prez. Obama. The status of the nation in 2000, was a lesson in pure precision of expert governance. THIS Liberal/Progressive president deserves the chance to show success is replicable. We’ve experienced what Conservatives have to offer 3 times since 1980, all ending in disaster. Now, we need to close the door, chapter & verse, on ‘supply-side’, ‘trickle-down’ mad science, that doesn’t, can’t & never will work – once & 4 all…

  3. howa4x says:

    The problem that never makes it into the debate is the corporate entitlement program run by congress, like paying big oil to drill, or ADM to make ethanol, or a myraid of other companies getting government funds. So lets start there. Cut the corporate giveaway, and make them pay their fair share in taxes. Last year GE paid no taxes. Make the republicans justify keeping this giveaway going while cutting social security and medicare. Then we will see a real debate in this country

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.