Note to Republicans: Americans Like Big Government. They’d Also Like Solutions.

We’re a “right of center country.” The majority of Americans are conservatives. Americans hate big government.  This all goes without saying, right?

Not exactly.

These are the central observational axioms of the modern Republican Party, and they are not modern at all, or even especially accurate.  They are at best anachronistic, and at worst gross miscalculations resulting from self-delusion.

We are not a “right of center” country.  A “right of center” country does not twice elect a far left socialist to be its president, regardless of our dissatisfaction with his opponent.  That should be self-evident.[1]

The majority of Americans are not conservatives.  Conservatives are the largest ideological group, but only with a plurality.  Polls show that at most, only 40% of Americans are self-identified conservatives.  And of those, around 20% supported Barack Obama for president in 2008, which means they are only “conservative” in their own mind, and that the real number of true conservatives in this country is around 32%.

While it is true that only 20% of Americans self-identify as liberal, as long as the Republican Party sees the world in binary terms, taking the “you’re either with us or against us” all-or-nothing approach, moderates might as well be liberals seeing as they increasingly find little room in a Republican Party dominated by ideological purists.

And Americans do not hate big government.  At least, not in the way conservatives think.  Yes, three-fourths of Americans say “big government is the greatest threat” to the United States, as compared to big business or big labor.  And in poll after poll, Americans from all walks of life indicate that they want “smaller government.”

But Americans also indicate that they like (read: “adamantly oppose cuts to”) America’s largest entitlement programs.  Fully 58% of Americans oppose cuts to Medicare and Social Security, and another 31% want only a minor reduction in either of those programs.  That’s 89% of the country that is basically happy with the size of the federal government’s two largest entitlements.  46% oppose any cuts to Medicaid, and 37% support only minor cuts.  That’s 83% that, for all intents and purposes, want to keep that program in place as it is.  And those three programs combined account for roughly 60% of all federal spending.

Another roughly 20% of federal spending is the military, which 60% of Americans oppose cutting even by as little as 8%.  Another 6% of our budget is paying off government debt (necessitated by all this spending), 3% is reserved for transportation, 3% for education, and 1% for “protection” (police, fire, prisons, etc).

Believe it or not, only 3% of our budget is reserved for government operations and “other spending,” and that’s actually a paltry sum.  That’s why whenever we have a “budget crisis” and a resulting sequester, it has almost no discernible effect on spending because what is being affected is only a tiny fraction of the budget, and then even within that group most programs and personnel are exempted one way or the other.

So when Americans complain that government is too big, the part that they’re complaining about is actually remarkably small!

Even when it comes to Obamacare, which we Republicans know Americans hate and therefore want repealed, it turns out that we are not right.  Republicans would do well to notice that while Obamacare is more unpopular than it has ever been, even that is only by a slim majority, as 53% disapprove and 37% approve, but (and this usually does not get factored in) another 11% don’t care.  That’s 48% that are basically fine with the law.  Further, the overwhelming majority of Americans — by 60% to 35% — would rather have Congress work to improve the law, instead of repeal it, even as Republicans around the country are campaigning on no issue other than repealing it!

Of course, try to show any of this data to conservative Republicans and they balk, insisting that their instinctive belief in a center-right America somehow provides a superior view of the American body politic than scientific extrapolations based on interviews with reliable cross-sections of the public.  We conservatives can’t conceptualize an America that leans left because when we think of “Americans” we think of something that looks like a Norman Rockwell painting: a functional, middle class, intact family in argyle sweater vests and khakis, sitting around a table with a large roasted bird in the middle, enjoying all the best of what post-World War II America has to offer, prosperous, self-reliant, ruggedly individualistic, and of course, patriotic.

But that is no longer “America” so much as it is a rapidly diminishing segment of America.  To believe otherwise is to believe in an illusion.  And to maintain this illusion we ignore that which is right in front of us.

We ignore the great divide that separates the deep inner cities from suburban America, a divide not so much racial in nature, but a cultural divide largely along racial lines.  Government is expected to help pay for your housing.  Government is expected to help pay for your food.  Government is expected to help pay for your clothes, and phone, and a lot of other things.

We ignore the feminists.  Government is expected to pay for your birth control.

We ignore the students.  Government is expected to help you with your college loans.

We ignore the labor unions and the minimum wage workers.  Government is expected to force businesses to pay higher salaries and give greater benefits.

We ignore the environmentalists.  Government is expected to hyper-regulate businesses and personal behavior.

We ignore even the average American, who could very well fit in that Rockwell painting, who says government should take an active role in creating jobs and in reducing the cost of healthcare and education, and making sure that we are comfortable in our later years, and provided for if and when we lose a job.

We ignore all those people because we cannot reconcile ourselves to the reality that nearly a century has passed since Franklin Roosevelt was elected, and during that time the vast majority of Americans have developed expectations that government will do more than passively sit by as we make our way through life.  We ignore all of that because that sort of mentality is not “America.”

Except that it is.

This self-deception is especially peculiar because conservatism prides itself on being an ideology that accepts harsh truths.  Well, let’s start by accepting the harsh truth that America wants big government.  That does not mean that there is no place for conservatism in this world.  Conservatism can be relevant if it is tailored to today’s political landscape, which means understanding that Americans, by and large, have assigned the government to do what they want it to do, and they want it to do a lot.  They just want it done better.

I am not saying that we should give in to every demand.  At some point, people have to provide for themselves, and some entitlements, such as subsidized birth control, are especially obnoxious.  But I am saying that conservatives are the reason so much is demanded of government because we have not been proactive in proposing alternate solutions, refusing as we do to even acknowledge what is happening.

Worse yet, this stubbornness with regard to our observational axioms has caused our policy axioms to become correspondingly disconnected from the American voters.  Conservatives do have the solutions to the problems that plague America.  But because our observational axioms are wrong, our policy axioms fall flat.

“Americans want fewer regulations.” The truth is that most Americans on a given day probably do not even notice their government, much less its regulations.  Ask the average American to name three government regulations that they hate, and in all likelihood they’ll mention some function of local government that is not even all that bothersome, and that’s if they can even come up with any.

“Americans want lower taxes.”  I suppose in an abstract sense that’s probably true, but the government has figured out a lot of ways to separate the people from their money rather painlessly, such as withholding taxes, inflation, borrowing, regulations, excise taxes, tariffs, hidden sales taxes, etcetera.  I don’t know that the average working American even notices his taxes that much, or that it’s even all that burdensome to him until he reaches that top quintile of the tax bracket reserved for Republicans.

Besides, after a while Americans tend to adjust to their circumstances, and begin to treat as normal that which not long before may have been seen as onerous.  When the price of gas goes up, people forget about the gas taxes that factor into the price and which greatly exceed profits.  Instead they complain about the “corporate greed” that demands profits in the first place.[2]

Americans by and large objected to the passage and implementation of Obamacare.  But soon enough Americans will adjust to the new realities of their inflated monthly healthcare costs, and as those costs continue to rise, again it will be “corporate greed” that is blamed.

The point is that Americans don’t want us to dismantle government.  They want those people in government to use the tools of government to solve problems.  It’s not enough to go around preaching about lower taxes and fewer regulations and “liberty,” and “federalism,” and “the Constitution,” and “capitalism.”  People don’t want hollow slogans.  They want solutions.

We Republicans know we have the right answers, but we don’t know why they are the right answers.  Our belief in conservatism is largely instinctive, supported as it has been by the historical record and our own life experiences, so we treat our arguments as self-evident.  Then when we lose we chalk it up to Democrats buying votes with government handouts, as though anybody would prefer to live off of government scraps instead of experiencing true prosperity.

What we need to do is start explaining to voters why conservatism works.  Voters don’t even know that Republicans have ideas, much less that they could work, as the party under John Boehner has chosen merely to define ourselves as the opposite of Democrats.  But that’s not enough.

Nor is it enough to simply say that the private sector is better than the public sector.  We need to explain how competition in the private sector improves goods and services while driving down costs.

Explain how we are going to improve the healthcare system by increasing the supply of available doctors and nurses and hospitals and drugs, increase competition, and eliminate middlemen, instead of redistributing costs.

Explain how school choice can save poor children from failing schools.

Explain how the welfare state has destroyed poor families by kicking fathers out of the household, incentivizing failure, and punishing success.

Explain how we can solve the student loan crisis by requiring schools receiving federal aid to dramatically lower their tuitions, and use their enormous endowments to help students in debt, as conditions of maintaining their non-profit status and/or accepting federally subsidized student loans.

Explain how lowering, if not outright eliminating business taxes will attract new investment and galvanize the economy and create jobs.  Explain how, in addition to raising our standard of living, this will lead to robust gains in revenue that will allow us to invest in education, and science, and culture, and infrastructure, and all those other things in which Americans want to see the government take a role

Explain how this endless and ever-increasing national debt threatens all of the above.  Explain how the Wall Street culture of “too big to fail” is untenable and threatens our entire financial system.  Explain how Congress is basically for sale to the highest bidder.

Explain, in short, how we are on the side of the American people. How we want what they want, and how our ideas chart the right course to arrive at those goals.

We should not feel threatened by this challenge, nor by the fact that Americans want an active government which, by conservative standards, is certainly qualifies as big government.  But “big government” and “small government” are, after all, relative terms.  If we grow the economy at a rate that exceeds government growth we can gradually reduce the relative size of government to one that is more manageable, and more agreeable to us conservatives.

But until we recognize what Americans really want, we will not be able to achieve a sizeable and consistent governing majority necessary to implement our ideas.  We can’t govern if we don’t win.  That’s an axiom that Republicans would do well to remember.


[1] I understand the oft-cited argument that 5 million evangelicals stayed home in the last election.  Every group has people who stay home.  One-third of African American voters also stayed home.

[2] Depending on the price of gas, oil companies make something like $.07 for every dollar of gas soldTaxes average roughly $.50 for every gallon sold, with rates being much higher in states like California.

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