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Are Americans Closet Statists?

Despite what liberal pollsters say, we don’t secretly worship big government.

Aug 9, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 44 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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So maybe Americans aren’t so different from Europeans after all? If you read a lot of the opinion press—poor lamb—you might be getting the idea that we’re all social democrats now. This would be sad news for Republicans. 

Are Americans Closet Statists?

Thomas Fluharty

Since the dawn of the Obama Tyranny, they have been hoping to frame a stark political contrast between themselves on the one hand, as guardians of American exceptionalism—the spirit of entrepreneurship, small government, self-reliance, individualism, robust commerce, and all the rest of it—and, on the other, Democrats who, while perfectly nice people and terrifically patriotic, have tendencies in the opposite direction, toward an expansive, European view of government intervention, stricter regulation of business, a more lavish provision for the poor, a preference for public over private action, and all the rest of that

The contrast would flatter Republicans, Republicans reasoned, because Americans themselves are great examples of American exceptionalism, and believers in it. Thus the election this fall and the one two years from now would be a clash of world views, with contending ideas about America’s uniqueness and its place in the world, about what kind of country we all want to have. It would be exhilarating! If true. 

And now come many people willing to tell us it isn’t true—even people who wish it were. The notion has been in the air for a while, but I first picked up its scent in a review of The Battle, a new book by Arthur C. Brooks, in the liberal magazine the American Prospect. The theme of The Battle is this same clash-of-world-views idea—the battle of the title is the national argument over American exceptionalism that Brooks thinks is fast approaching. The reviewer, Brink Lindsey, works for the Cato Institute, the libertarian hothouse. A small government guy himself, he might have been thought to be sympathetic. 

But no. Lindsey mocked Brooks’s argument by caricaturing it: “Supporters of free markets are defending a unique and precious American heritage, while [their Democratic opponents] have thrown in with the foreigners—worst of all, with effete, decadent Europeans.” In rebuttal Lindsey cited polling data showing that average Americans, when they’re given a pop quiz on economics, are not nearly as amenable to free market ideas as even liberal economists are. A New York Times poll this spring, moreover, found that “76 percent of Americans think ‘the benefits from government programs such as Social Security and Medicare are worth the costs of those programs.’ ” Even Tea Partiers, the Times reported, gave overwhelming support (62 percent) to Big Government programs. Americans are statists at heart.

Lindsey didn’t use the word “hypocrites” to describe a populace that flatters itself for its rugged individualism while panting after the cushy life promised by collectivism—for talking American and living European. The charge of mass hypocrisy came from a columnist for the Washington Post, Anne Applebaum, who wrote a column picking up where Lindsey left off. “Hypocrisy is hypocrisy,” she wrote. “Look around the world and we don’t seem as exceptional as we think.” In fact, we’re worse. “We not only demand ludicrous levels of personal and political safety, we reserve the right to rant and rave against the vast bureaucracies we have created .  .  . to deliver it.”

This is an old argument, and it never goes away for long. It’s usually revived when articulate people with strong political convictions suddenly see the public, which moments before had been agreeing with them, veering off in a seditious direction. Only a little more than 18 months ago, American voters elected a well-schooled sophisticate to the presidency and thereby demonstrated a long overdue spiritual maturity. Now, having turned on him, they are demonstrating their bad character. Today’s Tea Partiers are up-to-date versions of the Angry White Males who fomented the Republican takeover of the House 16 years ago. One fed-up pundit back then described his feelings about these ingrates with unusual heat: “They are, in short, Big Babies.” Nyah, nyah, nyah. From the wisdom and sophistication they had shown only two years before in electing Bill Clinton and strong Democratic majorities in Congress, they had regressed to the crib, like Benjamin Button.

Republicans, of course, assume that these big babies, these hypocrites and spoil sports, are getting a bad rap (for the time being, at least—if they suddenly start voting for Democrats again, today’s wise constitutionalists will suddenly degenerate into sheep, soft and pampered and easily led, bought off by the politicians of the welfare state). Yet there’s something more going on. For the picture of the public that emerges from the polls, even those cited by Lindsey and Applebaum, is more bewildering than they let on—not merely contradictory but nonsensical, and probably worthless. 

Only a shifty partisan or someone who’s succumbed to wishful thinking (or a demographer who’s getting paid by a shifty partisan) can pretend to derive a reliable and nuanced assessment of American attitudes from the daily fusillade of numbers that pollsters let loose. Last week the Center for American Progress (CAP), a liberal think tank, issued a poll-riddled paper titled “Better, not Smaller: What Americans want from their Federal Government.” To their credit, the CAP demographers refused to call American voters hypocrites for disagreeing with them. Instead, they refused to believe that American voters disagree with them. 

CAP, of course, promotes more federal involvement in priority areas such as energy, poverty, and education. And hey look: “Clear majorities of Americans of all ages,” says its report, “want and expect more federal involvement in priority areas such as energy, poverty, and education.” Fewer than 25 percent of respondents told the pollsters they wanted less involvement in those areas. 

At the same time, however, the demographers admitted that from some perspectives—theirs, most notably—a lot of the numbers look terrible. Only 33 percent had some or a lot of confidence in the federal government’s ability to solve problems. A slightly higher number, 39 percent, agree that “the government should do more to solve problems”; 57 percent say “government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals.”

A paradoxical people, these Americans: eager to have an incompetent government that they don’t trust do more of the things that they don’t want it to do. CAP’s pollsters square this circle by announcing that what Americans really want is a “federal government that is better not smaller,” which, as it happens, is what the Big Government liberals at CAP say they want, too. (Big Government conservatives also want this: their ideal is a government that is “energetic but limited,” like the Incredible Hulk isometrically flexing his muscles under a straitjacket.) 

There are easier ways to resolve the paradox. Maybe the problem is in the pollsters and not the respondents, in the questions rather than the answers. Simple, one-step questions are a dull blade with which to probe attitudes about a hypothetical future. 

Ask “Would you like a Ferris wheel in your backyard?” and a shockingly high percentage of Americans might say yes. Complicate the question, however—“Would you like a Ferris wheel in your backyard if it tripled your electric bill and bumped off the family dog?”—and the number would drop. Either/or questions aren’t much better. In its poll, CAP asked: “Please tell me whether you’d like to see more federal government involvement in [the following] areas, less involvement, about the same amount, or no federal government involvement.” Clear majorities (51 percent in the case of health care) answer “more, more, more.” CAP takes the result as an indication that Americans have a European-like craving for centralized power.

Yet a more complicated question would likely yield different results. “Would you like more government involvement in health care if it meant that .  .  . your insurance premiums rose or your employer might choose to drop your insurance .  .  . ?” The issue becomes less abstract when costs as well as benefits are introduced with any specificity. The Times poll that Lindsey and Applebaum cited merely asked respondents whether Social Security and Medicare were “worth the costs,” without saying what the costs are or might be. Indeed, even in CAP’s poll it appears that in some cases, the closer Big Government gets, the less Americans like it. Ten years ago 73 percent wanted more federal involvement in health care. Now that they’re about to get it—good and hard—the percentage has dropped to 51 percent. 

You could even make the case that the biggest threat to Big Government is Big Government. Karlyn Bowman, poll maven at the American Enterprise Institute (a small-government think tank run by Arthur Brooks), points to a survey from 1958, in which respondents were first asked how often they could trust the federal government “to do what was right.” Seventy-three percent said “always” or “most of the time.” A Yankelovich poll found similar attitudes in 1964. 

Twenty years later the percentage was down to 44 percent. Seymour Martin Lipset, in his book American Exceptionalism, reported that in 1964 only one out of three Americans thought his government served special interests rather than the public interest. Thirty years later the number was 80 percent, roughly where it is today in the CAP poll. 

What happened between 1964 and 1994? Lots of things: war, scandal, booms and busts, Jimmy Carter. Also, in 1965, Lyndon Johnson and an eager Congress launched the raft of programs known as the Great Society, which forever expanded the region of national life in which the federal government felt free to muck around. No one has been able to shrink the sphere since, though voters seem to like politicians—Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, even George W. Bush—who promise to try, and for this reason, I suppose, liberal commentators have told us we’ve been living through an age of conservative dominance. 

Now, in post-LBJ America, when a pollster asks adults whether they’d prefer a larger government with more services or a smaller government with fewer services, Americans have in almost every instance chosen the latter. The more tasks the government takes on the more likely it is to fail, and for citizens to see it as a failure. As the government changed, so did the public’s attitude toward it.

So we’re all libertarians, then—good American-style conservatives, the unEuropeans? Well, no. The poll numbers are too muddled to say that, or much of anything. CAP’s picture of a public hungry for government is confirmed in a 2006 Fox News poll. It asked whether people would rather pay higher taxes to increase spending for a variety of programs—or cut their funding and leave taxes as they were. Large majorities said they’d rather pay more in taxes than cut funding for eight of the nine programs listed. Two years later, in a poll by the National Opinion Research Center, similar majorities said the government was spending too little on education, the environment, health care, cops, even drug treatment programs—everything but culture and the arts. 

In his great book, Lipset conceded these contradictions as inevitable artifacts of polling in a country where people are expected to have considered opinions even when they don’t. But he didn’t think the confusion  undercut the idea that Americans are different from their counterparts in the social democracies of Europe. 

“Given their anger about politics in the United States,” Lipset wondered, “what accounts for the continued stability of the American system?” He answered by pointing to another instance of American exceptionalism: the unbending belief that Americans had in their future. “The American dream is still alive, even if the government and other institutions are seen as corrupt and inefficient.” He wrote that in 1996. And—polls show!—it is still true, even with distrust in government greater than it was then. Karlyn Bowman cites a recent Pew poll. Sixty-four percent of the population thinks the future is bright for themselves and their families. Sixty-one percent are optimistic about the future of the United States. Americans continue to believe, over all, that they will be better off tomorrow than they are today. 

Their lack of faith in government, in other words, is not reflected in a lack of faith in their country—probably because, unlike some people I could name, they know the difference between the two.

 Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard and the author of Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College.

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