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.