Heightening the Contradiction

One of the things conservative writers did in scrambling around for evidence that Mitt Romney’s Boca Moment would help, not hurt, his candidacy, and in fact represented something he should “own” and campaign on avidly, was to point at the latest findings in the tired Gallup tracking question they’ve been asking for 20 years about whether Americans want government to do more or less. Yes, a majority say “less,” as they’ve done nearly all the time since 1992. Yes, this is an indication that Americans don’t much trust or like government. But sorry, it means virtually nothing when it comes to judging public sentiment on any specific policy issue. In reality, the “right” answer for most Americans should probably be “mixed/depends,” which has never registered more than 10% in tracking of responses to this question. Are we talking about government’s domestic or international commitments? If you want “less government,” do you favor or oppose a government initiative to reduce the health cost spiral that is contributing more to the rising cost of government than any actual increase in services and benefits? And most of all, of course, if you want “less government,” whose bennies get cut, what regulations are eliminated, which subsidies are abandoned, and what sacred cows (e.g., it’s a good thing for taxpayers to massively subsidize homeownership and large families) are slaughtered?

But putting aside claims that this poll finding “proves,” as it has so often been cited to prove, this is fundamentally a “conservative nation” that has somehow been tricked for decades into supporting elected officials who promote policies Americans actually hate, there is obviously a kernel of truth: there is a persistent gap between public support for concrete government services, benefits and investments and government-services-benefits-and-investments as an abstract proposition.

At TNR, Jonathan Cohn nicely expresses the hope–which is actually shared across the ideological spectrum–that this election will do at least a bit to heighten and highlight this contradiction so that it can be resolved:

[T]he fact that the entitlement state has grown shouldn’t, by itself, alarm us. It’s actually a sign of progress, because it’s a reminder that the government has stepped in to do what the market would not. We saw, in the years before Social Security, what the world looks like when seniors don’t have adequate pensions. And we saw, in the years before Medicare and Medicaid and (now) the Affordable Care Act, what the world looks like when people can’t afford to pay their medical bills. It was not pretty. But the price for addressing those failures was the creation of some massive government programs. They cost a lot of money, yes, but we all benefit from them at some point, as [Mark] Schmitt noted in his essay: “Most of us, other than the permanently disabled, are givers and takers to government, because that’s what it is to be part of a community or a nation.”

That’s really the point I hope people take away from this episode, if not in the next few weeks that preceed the election than in the months and years that follow. If the polls are right, the voters today are pretty skeptical of government, at least relative to what they were up through the 1960s. But the voters also believe government should make sure the elderly and poor have health care. They believe government should provide pensions through Social Security. They even believe government should guarantee that everybody has food and shelter, as the Washington Post’s Suzy Khimm pointed out on Tuesday. With any luck, Romney’s controversial comments will get people to think about these contradictions—and to realize that they like government a lot more than they seem to realize.

Change “like” to “hate” in that last sentence, and you have a proposition most of the conservative activists panting for Romney to double down on his harsh words for the Great American Moochocracy would readily endorse.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.