I have written previously that I believed the biggest contribution Ronald Reagan made to American conservatism was that he almost singlehandedly altered the civic conversation about government spending on social programs.
Prior to Reagan’s reasoned, and impassioned dialectic against big government, the debate over government programs began and ended with the question “How much more” should we be spending,” or “How big should this government program be” to accomplish its intended objective.
Democrats monetized this debate by increasing the number of zeroes in these program’s appropriations. Granted, this is something of an oversimplification but essentially, the center of gravity in Washington tilted toward more, more, and still more in the belief that “solving” the problem being addressed, and showing “compassion” for the poor was a matter of growing the size of government to meet the challenge.
Enter Ronald Reagan who championed the idea that “throwing money” at a problem wasn’t solving anything, and was making things worse. (There were other conservatives who gave Reagan his arguments - Buckley, Hayek, Mises, etc. But none had as big a bullhorn.) Over time, the civic conversation was altered to question not only the huge appropriations, but the necessity and the viability of these programs.
At bottom, of course, was Reagan’s contention that government was mis-spending tax dollars and threatening individual liberty by growing the size and scope of the federal government. It was an argument that plowed already fertile fields because from it’s founding, Americans have fiercely resisted centrally exercised power from Washington. From Andrew Jackson’s destruction of the Bank of America to the cheers of the common man, through Abe Lincoln’s draft, which set off riots in the north, through FDR’s overreach, and Bill Clinton’s attempt at nationalized health care, Americans have been more than suspicious of big government. There seems to be a genetic predisposition for Americans to resist government that they perceive as overstepping its limits.
Granted, those limits have expanded since Andy Jackson’s time. Most Americans have accepted a government that can feed them when they’re hungry, house them when they’re homeless, and generally be there with a “safety net” if misfortune befalls them. Social Security, Medicare, and other entitlements are sacred cows because they enjoy almost universal support by voters. This may be the death of us yet unless we can find a way to get their gargantuan costs under control.
But, as President Obama is finding, there are still lines in the sand that Americans are refusing to allow their government in Washington to cross. And Matt Welch of Reason Magazine, writing in the NY Post, nails why:
While the commentariat’s condescension is almost comical, the whole evil-or-stupid explanation misses the elephant in Obama’s room: Americans of all stripes, it turns out, aren’t very keen about the government barging into their lives.
An ABC/Washington Post poll from June showed people preferred “smaller government with fewer services” over “larger government with more services” by 54% to 41%, up from 50%-45% a year earlier (independents were even more pronounced, at 61%-35%). A Rasmussen poll from April showed that 77% of Americans preferred a “free market” economy over a “government managed” economy, up seven percentage points from just last December. A July CBS poll found that 52% of Americans think that Obama is trying to do “too much.”
After 11 months of federal bailouts and freakouts, Americans have become bone tired of panicky power grabs from Washington. It’s the big government, stupid.
The message of the various Tea Party protests, which predated this summer’s ahistorical media panic over town hall “lynch mobs,” has been pretty simple, says Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, the nonprofit that has helped organize the protests, told Reason magazine this spring. “It was: stop spending so much money, stop borrowing so much money, and stop bailing out people who were irresponsible.”
I applaud the attempt by Mr. Welch to alter the narrative that begins and ends with protestors being “racist,” fascist mobs,” “un-American,” or “retarded.” It won’t matter anyway. Polls also show that a majority of Americans support the protestors which means that the Krugman’s, Rich’s, Pelosi’s, Garafolo’s, and the rest of the left aren’t getting any traction with their “evil-or-stupid” incantations.
Regardless, it’s the resistance to government overstepping what Americans sense is a proper exercise of its power that has so many, so angry. While there is much more tolerance for big government today - even government that helps the middle class with programs like S-Chip, and home mortgage bailouts - there are still boundaries (sensed more than specifically spelled out) that a majority of Americans refuse to stand for.
This is the essence of American exceptionalism. We are a different people than Europeans, and any other society in the world. We were deliberately made so at our founding and continue to be to this day. What should be self evident, is lost on many liberals who equate American exceptionalism with a rude form of nationalism. Not so - demonstrably not so. There is no other society in the world that looks upon government with such a jaundiced eye when they perceive that government to be crossing a comfort barrier relating to how much power the central authority should wield.
At heart, America is a profoundly conservative country in that First Principles, a respect for our past, and supporting change only when that change can be folded into tradition, is believed and supported by a large majority. This doesn’t mean that the out of bounds hasn’t been moving left the last 100 years. We are also, at bottom, a practical people, and see real benefit to growing government when the occasion calls for it. This too, makes us an exceptional people in that despite all, the people still have a big say in how big a government they will accept.
Perhaps one day, Americans will accept a growth in government that will result in Washington running health care. But it is not today, nor do I see such a day arriving in my lifetime. Each generation of Americans defines the parameters of their liberty differently. It is our particular genius as we constantly re-invent ourselves to meet the challenges of a changing world.
Obama and the Democrats ignore this reality at their political peril.