The Public Wants to Believe In Big Government

Walter Shapiro has an article in TNR titled “Americans Like Big Government: They just don’t really know it yet” which is about the importance of branding in building support for a progressive agenda. I think our new CAP report on the state of American political ideology provides some context for this and helps move beyond the old saw about America being ideological conservative and operationally liberal.

For one thing, when you let people describe themselves as “progressive” the country turns out to be almost exactly evenly split between left and right ideologies. Basically, things are about as you would expect. And on specifics, there’s a strong desire for high levels of government spending with 79 percent agreeing that “Government investments in education, infrastructure, and science are necessary to ensure America’s long-term economic growth” and 69 percent agreeing that “Government has a responsibility to provide financial support for the poor, the sick, and the elderly.” This fairly overwhelming support for spending is tempered by more conservative views on some other issue area, and also by concern that government does work well in practice. 61 percent agree that “Government spending is almost always wasteful and inefficient.” CAP also coded as “progressive” the 65 percent who agreed that “Government policies too often serve the interests of corporations and the wealthy” but at least some of that might be skepticism about the idea that an activist federal government will actually side with average people, rather than a belief that we need to reverse the small-government policies of the past 30 years.

At the moment, yearning for big government outpaces doubts about its efficacy. And this is the essence of the current progressive moment of opportunity. But the gap is not large. Perceived failure could easily cause those numbers to flip and usher in an era in which progressives console themselves with the fact that 61 percent support more investments while ignoring the fact that 79 percent believe such investments would be wasted.

In the first instance, I think this means sorting out the banking policy issue correctly, rather than anything that’s about politics per se. You’ll never make a bailout popular, but you could make a bailout effective and economic growth would create confidence that Obamaism is delivering results. Beyond that, I do think the branding issue becomes important. It’s important to try to emphasize the fact that highly esteemed elements of the government — the military comes to mind — are part of a broader tapestry of public service. It’s important to highlight the good work of civilian agencies that happens in the background instead of only noticing the government when there’s a failure. It’s important to show that progressives care about improving the delivery of services and not just increasing the quantity of funds going in as inputs. Heck, it’s probably even important at some point to have some of Obama’s fancy graphic designers help make better logos for different federal agencies.