The Anti-Government Movement's Radical Agenda

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Beneath the Surface: Surprisingly Strong Support for Government

Of course, most conservative ideologues in American are hardly bothered by the fact that their movement is exceptional among Western countries in its strong distaste for government. In fact, they take pride in this. They often argue that their anti-state views merely reflect the broader “exceptionalism” of American political culture – that Americans just have a more intense dislike for the state than do citizens in other Western cultures. But this is highly misleading. In reality, the American public is very much of two minds about government: we both dislike and like government. It depends a lot on how we are asked about it. When asked about government in general, Americans usually react negatively. They say that government is inherently wasteful and incompetent, and that they have little confidence in it. The number of people who say they trust the federal government to do the right thing most of the time declined from a high of 62% in 1964 to 40% in 2000.21 And people usually rate politicians at the bottom of the list of occupations in terms of integrity and honesty – right next to used car salesmen. From this it is easy to conclude that most Americans really don’t like government at all. But questions about government in the abstract are exactly those that are likely to trigger the negative stereotypes of government that are so close to the surface in many of our minds – corrupt politicians, wasteful bureaucracies, etc. However, if we begin to probe beneath these initial, knee-jerk attitudes towards government, we begin to see something else. If we go beyond questions about government in general and begin to ask more specific questions about this institution, we get a very different reaction from most Americans. For instance, most people rate Congress quite low as an institution, but when they are asked about their own particular congressperson – who they usually know fairly well – they routinely give their own representative very high marks. More importantly, when pollsters ask Americans to think about how much responsibility government should have in specific areas like jobs, housing, and health care, you get some unexpected answers. Our answers are not as pro-government as those of the European citizens noted above, but a surprising number of us believe that government should play a large role in addressing these pressing social problems. 71% of Americans believe that the government has an important or essential responsibility for seeing to it that anyone who wants a job can have one. 63% believe that the government has an important or essential responsibility to provide citizens with adequate housing; and 78% of us think that the government has an important or essential responsibility to provide citizens with good medical care.22 These are hardly the answers of a people who want to drastically reduce government’s role in society. One social scientist, looking at the figures, commented that “Rather than a confirmation of American individualism, the results … are better understood as an indication of the surprisingly strong support for government social responsibility that exists in this land of ‘rugged individualism.’”23

We find similarly strong public support for government when we ask people whether we should be spending more money or less money on programs that care for the elderly, protect the environment, support education, etc. Large majorities actually say they like these programs and want the government to spend more money on them – not less. Table 6 shows the typical results of one of these surveys. As the results clearly demonstrate, very few people actually think the government should spend less on Social Security, crime, the environment, health, parks, education, highways, etc. The only areas where a substantial number of people want less spending are welfare (35.3%), foreign aid (55.3%), and defense (42.4%). In almost every other issue area, less than 10% of the public want to cut spending. More importantly, in every single one of these areas, a majority of Americans want the government to keep spending at least the same amount. And in the areas of the environment, health, crime, education, childcare, and Social Security, a majority thinks the government should spend more. This evidence clearly shows that while we don’t seem to like the idea of government, we do like what it does for us in reality. So the conventional wisdom about Americans uniformly hating government – the view assumed and promoted by anti-government conservatives – is in fact wrong. Most of us have enough common sense to strongly support the vital government programs that are working to improve our lives.

 

Table 6: Public Attitudes Toward Spending on Government Programs.

 

Should Spend More

Spending About Right

Should Spend Less

Protecting the environment

65.6%

23.5%

8.1%

Protecting our health

74.6%

17.6%

4.7%

Halting the rising crime rate

59.9%

24.5

6.8%

Improving the educ. system

70.4%

23.1%

5.4%

Social Security

59.6%

30.1%

5.5%

Childcare subsidies

50.6%

35.6%

6.2%

Highways and bridges

45.3%

41.8%

9.5%

Military, arms, and defense

23.4%

30.3%

42.4%

Foreign Aid

11.7%

25.9%

55.3%

Welfare

25.0%

34.7%

35.3%

Parks and recreation

30.4%

61.8%

5.3%

Mass transit

46.6%

38.7%

7.6%

Source: National Opinion Research Center, “General Social Survey Codebook 2008.” (Table does not include respondents who answered “Don’t know.”)

 

No Turn to the Right in Public Opinion

Another striking finding of the polls cited above is that Americans’ positive attitudes toward many key government programs have held steady for the last three decades.24 Since the 1970s, our strong support for these programs has hardly wavered at all. This comes as a surprise to many people, especially those on the right. Minimal government activists like to argue that their attempt to cut programs is simply a reaction to the public’s increasing conservatism and hostility toward government. They suggest that there has been a general turn to the right in American politics in response to the liberal excesses of the Great Society in the 1960s, and this includes an increasing public opposition to big government. But no such “right turn” has taken place. As numerous studies have shown, “there is virtually no compelling survey evidence that more Americans have actually embraced conservatism since the 1960s.”25 Surveys that ask people to position themselves on a conservative—liberal continuum have found that the number of people calling themselves “conservative” has increased by a mere 2% since the 1960s. And a study of the public’s view of left-right issues conducted by Morris Fiorina concluded that “Americans are about as conservative or liberal as they were a generation ago.”26

Polls also reveal that negatives attitudes toward government have not increased across the board during the last decades – and some have even decreased. In 1972, when asked if government was “too powerful,” 49% of Americans said yes. But that figure was down substantially in 2002 – to 39%.27 And when asked whether they wanted to cut government services or to provide more services (even if that required raising taxes), Americans were evenly divided in 1992. By 2000, however, more than twice as many wanted to increase services (39%) than wanted to cut them (18%).28

Something has turned sharply to the right in the last 30 years, but it has not been the public. It has been the conservative leadership. A generation ago, most Republican politicians were actually moderates, in the mold of Dwight Eisenhower, Nelson Rockefeller, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. Nixon was probably the most conservative of these four, but he often embraced government and expanded its powers and programs when necessary to deal with a variety of problems. He signed into law the Clean Air Act and the Environmental Protection Agency, he helped to implement Affirmative Action, and he supported passage of a national health insurance plan. More new federal regulations were adopted under Nixon than under Lyndon Johnson. And he approved the largest increases in domestic spending since the New Deal. Hardly the policy record of someone who thought that we had too much government.

But conservative leaders began to veer sharply to the right in the 1980s, as Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson have documented in their book, Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy. They show, for example, that the median Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives is now 73% more conservative than their counterpart in the 1970s. They also cite studies that examine how the political views of core Republican activists compare to those of independent voters. These studies show that in the 1960s Republican activists were only about 20% more conservative than independents, but that by 2002, they had become 40% more conservative.29 Hacker and Pierson conclude that “Republican activists are not only far to the right of independents, they are also far to the right of ordinary voters within their own party. And they have been heading ever more sharply right since the 1980s.”30

Part of this increasing gap between conservative leaders and many independent and conservative voters can be seen in their diverging attitudes towards the value of government programs. This is clearly evident in the results of the polls cited earlier on how much the public supports spending on various government policy efforts. These surveys reveal that those who oppose the conservative leadership’s agenda of cutting vital government programs are not just liberals – they include many independents and conservatives as well. Only about 20% of the electorate identify themselves as liberals; and yet the figures in Table 6 show that upwards of 90% of Americans believe we should not be cutting spending on health, education, environmental protection, and so on. This means that very large numbers of people who see themselves as moderates or independents support these government programs. And since over 30% of Americans identify themselves as conservative, clearly many of them too do not want to see cuts in these areas of government responsibility. In fact, when Republican lawmakers proposed in 2011 to cut spending on Medicare and Medicaid, polls showed that a whopping 70% of Republicans and 80% of registered Tea Party voters actually opposed those cuts – much to the shock of many conservative pundits.

But such grassroots conservative support for large government programs should not be shocking. Many conservative citizens benefit greatly from these programs. Also, it is certainly possible to be a social conservative who is strongly anti-abortion and anti-gay, and yet who also strongly supports spending on health care and environmental protection. In any case, these poll figures provide more evidence that the anti-government movement’s policy agenda of slashing funding for many big-government  programs is not only at odds with the views of most Americans, it is out of touch with the views of many conservatives as well – a good indication of just how extreme this agenda really is.

An Undemocratic Movement

The anti-government movement represents a deeply disturbing development in American politics: a group of political activists imposing their radical policy agenda on a public that does not support it. There is not, and has never been, a widespread public demand to drastically reduced government in the United States. This movement has not been an example of democracy at work. It has been an example of special interest politics at work – it has been an attack on democracy. The demand for smaller government has come primarily from those wealthy individuals and powerful business interests who would most directly profit from lowered taxes and less regulation. As I describe in another article, it is these very interests that have provided the billions of dollars of support that has enabled this movement to grow in political power. The success of the anti-government movement in this country has not been the result of a shift to the right in public opinion, but the result of a shift to the right in political influence – a product of the ever-increasing power of affluent interests in our political system. But the undemocratic nature of this anti-government crusade and its lack of popular support have not discouraged it most ardent promoters.

 

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To see exactly how the anti-government movement has been pursuing its radical agenda and the damage these efforts are doing to American society, go to the next articles, “Starving Social Programs,” “Stealth Deregulation: The Untold Story,” and “The Courthouse Crusade.”

 


1 Barry Goldwater, quoted in the Cato Institute, “The Paradox of the Statist Businessman” http://www.cato.org/pubs/policy_report/pr-ma-pa.html, June 19, 2006.

2 See the work of Professor Richard Epstein of the Chicago Law School. Also, see Epstein’s views described in William Greider, “The Right and U.S. Trade Law: Invalidating the 20th Century” Nation, October 15, 2001.

3 Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), p. 34.

4 Meg Bostrom, “By, or For, the People? A Meta-Analysis of Public Opinion of Government,” August 26, 2006, p. 33. http://www.demos.org/pubs/ByOrForthePeople20050426.pdf

5 Charles Murray, Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980 (New York: Basic Books, 1995), p. 227.

6 California Governor Ronald Reagan in the Sacramento Bee, April 28, 1966.

7 Metrotimes, “Dubious Achievement Awards, 2005,” June 20, 2006 http://www.metrotimes.com/editorial/story.asp?id=7162.

8 Daniel Schorr, “Bush’s Social Security Plan Carries Ideological Underpinnings,” All Things Considered, March 7, 2005.

9 Quoted in Earthworks Action, 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Fight the Right (Ashland, OR: Earthworks Press, 2006) p. 103.

10 People for the American Way, The Voucher Veneer: The Deeper Agenda to Privatize Public Education (Washington DC: People for the American Way, 2003) Appendix 1.

11 Quoted in Earthworks Action, 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Fight the Right (Ashland, OR: Earthworks Press, 2006) pp. 103-04.

12 “Action for All: The Public’s Responsibility for Public Education,” a report of findings from a nationwide survey sponsored by the Public Education Network and Education Week, April 2001, p. 9.

13 People for the American Way, The Voucher Veneer: The Deeper Agenda to Privatize Public Education (Washington DC: People for the American Way, 2003) p.3.

14 Libertarian Party of New Hampshire, “Key Issues.” http://www.lpnh.org/issues.htm

15 Hacker and Pierson, p. 50.

16 Ibid. p. 50.

17 William Greider, “The Right’s Grand Ambition: Rolling Back the 20th Century” May, 12, 2003, The Nation, p. 11.

18 See T.R. Reid’s discussion of Europeans’ positive attitudes toward the welfare state in The United States of Europe (New York,: The Penguin Press, 2004), p. 149.

19 Martin Gilens, Why American’s Hate Welfare (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1999), p. 26.

20 John Mickethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America (New York: The Penguin Press, 2004), p. 11, 13.

21 The National Election Studies, http://www.umich.edu/~nes/nesguide/toptable/tab5a_1.htm

22 Gilens, p. 26.

23 Gillens, p. 27.

24 Marc J. Hetherington, Why Trust Matters (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004) Chapter 3.

25 Hetherington, p. 45.

26 Cited in Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), p. 39.

27 Hacker and Pierson, p. 40.

28 Ibid. p. 40.

29 Ibid. pp. 28, 27.

30 Ibid. p. 28.

 

 

 

 

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