Why Government Becomes the Scapegoat

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But Why Do We Believe This Stuff?

It is easy enough to understand why free-market fundamentalists and business interests believe that “government is the problem” – it is in their ideological and economic interests to do so. But why do we believe it? Why do so many average, non-ideological Americans accept these arguments – arguments that often make very little sense? Polls show, as noted earlier, that a very large majority of Americans (71%) blame government for stagnant wages – a problem that clearly has it causes in the private sector, not the government.13 It would make much more sense for those angry about stagnant wages to focus their attention on businesses who continue to prosper by paying their workers low wages and who refuse to let their employees unionize.

Or consider the issue of globalization and other long-term changes in our economy. The political scientist Joseph Nye, Jr. has noted that many of these changes are causing problems for an increasing number of Americans, even many in the middle-class. As problems like increased job insecurity, lower wages, downsizing, job stress, and higher unemployment have multiplied, many people seem determined to blame government for these things. As Nye explains:

Many of the people being laid off today are middle-class holders of white-collar jobs – something that was not as prevalent in the past. We are seeing the “democratization of insecurity.” This produces a “politics of the anxious middle.” In the long run the country may profit from this creative destruction, but in the interim people feel insecure and anxious and then blame the government rather than the deeper economic and historical forces.14

Susan Tolchin has noticed the very same phenomenon: “Today, when middle managers and blue-collar workers lose their jobs, they blame government even though, when pressed, they cannot think of what specific role government played in influencing decisions by Xerox, or Mobil, or IMB to downsize their workforces or move factories to Mexico.”15  So as financial problems and anxieties rise for many Americans, instead of getting angry with businesses or capitalism, they get angry with government. But why is this so? Why do so many Americans – even those who are not conservative – take their anger out on government when it is not the cause of many of their problems?

Powerlessness and Kicking the Dog of Government

The main reason that the public tends to go along with the right’s efforts to scapegoat government is the sense of powerlessness that most people feel when it comes to trying to control what is going on in the private sector. Many people believe they have little or no influence over business decisions or the workings of the market economy. This creates the conditions for the emergence of what psychologists call “displacement.” Displacement is a psychological defense mechanism in which feelings of anger and frustration are displaced or redirected from the real causes of those feelings onto an innocent third party. The typical example is a man who feels harassed by his boss at work, who then comes home and yells at his wife. The worker is powerless to take his frustrations out on his boss, so he redirects it at another person over which he has some power.

This is exactly what often happens when citizens are confronted with serious problems over which they feel they have little or no control – they take their frustrations out on government and officials over which they have at least some control. Take the deeper social forces at work in the family. Divorce rates are up and traditional families are on the wane. Yet there is little that people can do about these larger social changes, so they turn to blaming government officials and schools for not emphasizing “family values.”

But again, it is especially when people are confronted with economic problems that they tend to feel powerless to respond. It is not a coincidence that the classic example of displacement involves a man who feels unable to directly address problems in his workplace and so takes it out on his family at home. People feel that there is little they can do about economic problems – such a low wages, joblessness, boring work, rising health care costs, loss of pensions, etc. – that are generated in the private sector. Even though they often have some idea that these problems are caused by decisions made in the economic system, they also realize that they have no power to directly affect those decisions. So they tend to take it out on a group over which they do have some power – politicians and the government. These officials can at least be booted out of office. Blaming government is a way for the public to express their anger and resentment and to act upon it – even if the target is ultimately the wrong one.

Susan Tolchin remarked on this process in her book, The Angry American. She noted that people concerned about the loss of family farms often tend to direct their anger at government and blame land-use regulations such as those designed to protect wetlands.

Why blame the government? Far more family farms are gobbled up by the forces of agribusiness, timber, and mining interests than by wetlands legislation. Why isn’t Weyerhauser as tempting a target as the Interior Department? Probably because people can do something about government, whereas it is virtually impossible to vote out the chairman of the board or change corporate policies.

Living in a capitalist society, we often have little control of what is happening in the private sector. So we take our frustrations out on the public sector. Ironically, of course, we take them out on the very public institutions that have enough power to actually allow us to exert some more democratic control over the private sector decisions and the market forces that shape so much of our lives. But if we are busy blaming government, we are less likely to think about how we could use this form of collective power to make private sector decision makers more accountable to the public.


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