Smaller Is Better, Except When It Isn’t

ABC News and the Washington Post released a poll at the end of April that seems to endorse the view current in the media these days that Americans want smaller government.

The poll quantified real anger at incumbents — 57% said they would look for an alternative to their Congressman, the highest figure since the Republican takeover in 2004, though trust for Republicans remains absurdly low.

The poll purports to sum up the climate in which the mid-term elections are about to be fought, an environment in which Republicans are expected to make significant gains and could retake the House.

Anger at incumbents is warranted, of course. The economy remains mired in a massive slump despite what the economists say — one in six Americans are unemployed or underemployed and those who are working can’t be sure whether they are about to face a jobless future; millions are without healthcare and millions more deal daily with food insecurity. The national debt has exploded, severely hampering our ability to help those who need help. We are prosecuting two wars, fighting on several other fronts and are making no efforts to rein in the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned us about 50 years ago.

So, yes, the American public has a reason to be angry.

But the ABC-Post poll captured more than just this discontent. It offered a brief snap shot, unintended to be sure, of the impact that the media’s long-standing, dominant narrative — the conservative, small-government meme — has on public perception.

“In another vulnerability for the president,” Gary Langer wrote in an ABC analysis, “Americans by 56-40 percent said they preferred smaller government with fewer services — almost exactly the average the past 26 years — but by a vast 77-15 percent thought Obama prefers the opposite, larger government with more services. That, plus concerns about the deficit, seem ripe for a 2010 campaign theme for the Republican Party.”

People say they want/prefer smaller government. As ABC points out, the numbers have remained pretty consistent since the Reagan administration.

This is not news, nor is it particularly enlightening. Americans are inundated with anti-government rhetoric, and not just from Fox News. They get it from the mainstream stations, as well, on ABC’s Good Morning America, which took the poll findings as gospel, and shows like 20/20, where commentators like John Stossell spend their time bashing government as some entity foreign to our lives.

And given that the government-size question followed literally dozens questioning the direction of the country and the effectiveness of government institutions, I’m not surprised how the following question was answered:

“Generally speaking, would you say you favor (smaller government with fewer services), or (larger government with more services)?”

But when the questions are asked in a different context — when potential voters are asked if money should be spent on infrastructure or to protect unemployment benefits, or whether specific services should be cut — we tend to get different answers. What gives?

I think what polls like ABC’s demonstrate is that Americans dislike the idea of big government, that the phrase has been so tarnished in the public’s mind that potential voters respond to what has become a cliché with clichéd answers.

Voters, basically, want small government, except that they really don’t. What they really are saying in these polls is that they like the idea of small government, but not if it means that the services they receive will be cut.

Middle-class taxpayers want welfare curtailed but yell when their mortgage deductions are cut.

Americans hate regulations, but when the government fails to ensure that the hamburger bought at the local store is tainted with e coli, they shout loudly and demand action.

We want good schools, well-stocked libraries, police departments with enough manpower to keep us safe. We want roads without potholes, bridges that do not collapse and working traffic lights. We want a safety net when we fall on tough times (though we prefer that it not stretch too far or cover too many people we don’t like).

We want planning and zoning boards that manage development, preventing factories from being built next to housing and local health boards to make sure local restaurants are clean and safe. We want our seniors protected from abusive situations in nursing homes and children to be safe from predators in day care.

We want, we want, we want and we see little contradiction in wanting all of this — oversight functions that by necessity must be provided by government — but hating government. It is the difference between reality and theory. As I said, Americans want smaller government — except when small means they do not get what they want.

Hank Kalet is a poet and newspaper editor in New Jersey. E-mail; blog,

From The Progressive Populist, June 1, 2010

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