Anti-statism in America: Why Americans hate to love government

In a poll taken October 9–13 by Public Strategies in conjunction with Politico, 52 percent of respondents feared that Congress would go “too far in increasing the government’s role in health care.” In a Harris poll in early October, 65 percent agreed, and only 22 percent disagreed, with the “criticism” that “the proposed reform would result in a government-run health care system.” In other words, Americans are looking to the government for help, but they still don’t like the government.

And this isn’t just confined to the health care debate. You get the same inconsistencies if you look at polls about government regulation of finance and business. Polls show majority support for specific new measures, such as restricting CEO salaries and establishing a new consumer financial-protection agency, but the Public Strategies/Politico poll found that 68 percent of respondents preferred “better enforcement of existing regulation” over “new regulations.” Again, Americans are turning to government, but they distrust letting it do too much.

This pattern of belief is deeply rooted in the American psyche and has regularly stymied efforts at reform. Americans have supported, or have come to support, specific governmental remedies, such as Social Security, the minimum wage, and environmental and consumer protections. But, when a new program that expands government is proposed, they have displayed a general ideological predisposition against the power of government. As Obama tries to get his reform agenda through Congress, this predisposition is already proving to be a formidable obstacle.