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Democrats Increasingly Afraid of Big Government

William Galston — who served as issues director in the Presidential campaign of Walter Mondale, and who went on to serve as Domestic Policy Advisor for President William Jefferson Clinton — is an honest and honorable liberal Democrat whom I have known for years. On policy issues, we only rarely agree, but, on electoral politics, it is even more rare that I do not learn from reading what he writes something significant that I did not know.

Back in mid-December, when he considered the significance of Barack Obama’s much-heralded Osawatomie speech, he warned that economic populism as a political strategy was likely this year to be a loser; and, in explaining why, he pointed to some very interesting and surprising polling data. Everything that Galston had to report in his piece — which suggests that Americans are far more concerned about the absence of economic growth than about inequality — is worthy of note. But the real kicker is this:

A third Gallup survey asked Americans to state whether they saw big business, big government, or big labor as the biggest threat to the country in the future. In March of 2009, 55 percent felt most threatened by big government, and 32 percent by big business.  As of December 2011, a near-record 64 percent saw big government as the greatest threat, versus on 26 percent for big business. As Obama nears the end of his third year in office, the people are more likely to fear government, and less likely to fear business, than they were at the beginning of his administration.

The source of the change is surprising. Republican fear of government, already sky-high in 2009, hasn’t budged, while fear of government among independents has risen only modestly. The big change has occurred among Democrats. In 2009, only 32 percent feared big government the most, compared to 52 percent who feared big business. Today, fully 48 percent of Democrats (up 16 percentage points) cite government as their principal fear, while only 44 percent give business pride of place. In short, a 2008 election widely regarded as heralding a shift toward the more government-friendly public sentiment of the New Deal and Great Society eras seems to have yielded just the reverse.

I have thought since April, 2009 that we were in the midst of a political realignment. The data cited by Galston would suggest that I might just be right. Like John Lindsay in days gone by, Barack Obama is the sort of man who gives a bad cause a bad name.

Stay tuned.

  1. The Cloaked Gaijin

    Liberals will never abandon big government.  That’s the biggest scam ever.

    Take an issue like global warming:  If you want to believe in global warming in a small-government society, believe in global warming.  What do I care!  However, liberals use an issue like global warming to force non-believers and skeptics to do things through the force of big government that they do not wish to do — pay more for gasoline, subsidize ethanol and less effective and unreliable methods of energy production, import more foreign oil, pay for the unemployment of people forced out of work in the energy exploration sector, buy crazy lighting equipment and strange automobiles, etc.

  2. James Of England

    One thing I always worry about with these things is that “big government” threats, to a Democrat, can mean traditional marriage, the Pledge in schools, restrictions that make getting an abortion non-trivial, “subsidies for sending jobs overseas” and similar protectionist fantasies”, responsible policing, and an un-Paulian (not in the Rahe, sense) defense policy.

    This may be very good news, but I’d want to hear more before this stopped sounding a little like the imagined substantial crossover of interest between OWS and the TEA Party, with people on both sides saying that if the other side really thought about it, they’d come on over (“although of course, our guys are a bunch of squishes who won’t give us what we want anyway”).

    Governor Manchin and his ilk do give me some hope that this might be the good news story, though. Likewise, Paul’s success seems like a nice indicator of views, even if only because we know that most people don’t really know his policies, and respond to the stereotypes.

  3. The King Prawn

    More importantly, though, is what do they want to replace it with, small government or big liberty?

  4. Paul A. Rahe
    C

    Here’s a thought, James. The whole thing may have to do with a fear of Obamacare. This thing has really unsettled people. I am guessing, however.

  5. DocJay

    A second Obama term seems pre-ordained to me minus an impeachment level scandal. It is not just big government people dislike but corrupt government. I actually think our country will turn more conservative during a second disastrous Obama admin than from a Romney regime. I really could care less what any poll says regarding the election because I am positive how it ends minus a discrediting. I think that not only the lefty news media but some of the financial powers that be have this as a rigged game. People blame big government for the housing crisis and most of our ills in general. What your poll alludes to is that democrats are concerned with big government but who do they think of as big government? If you watched CBS tonight they blast Eric Cantor and that is what they probably mean, business as usual GOP. Either Romney or Gingrich gets the nod from the GOP and either will be painted as big government by the Obama admin which is comedy considering what Obama is but the American public will buy the spin. The fact that democrats are sick of crooks is a good sign though, better late than never.

  6. DocJay

    Mr Rahe, people indeed are scared of Obamacare( I’m frightened to no end), but the insurance, pharmacy, tort, and hospital industry signed on to it. Do not sell the Ayn Randian nightmare short for it is upon us.

  7. Severely Ltd.
    James Of England: One thing I always worry about with these things is that “big government” threats, to a Democrat, can mean traditional marriage, the Pledge in schools, restrictions that make getting an abortion non-trivial, “subsidies for sending jobs overseas” and similar protectionist fantasies”, responsible policing, and an un-Paulian (not in the Rahe, sense) defense policy.

    If this poll had been taken under W, I would be more inclined to your view, but the Tea Party has since framed the term “big government” as onerous regulation, heavy taxation and wasteful spending (this last could be spun either way, I admit). The MSM went out of their way to show the waving signs and interview the “extremists” making their crazy case. Do you think that Democrats were unaware of that message and its ties to the phrase? I admit that it’s almost too good to believe that they would be coming around and consciously agreeing with the conservative message, but maybe the state of the economy has scared more than a few over to rationality. A man can dream can’t he? I’m going to be heartened by this news for the time being.

  8. The Mugwump

    I don’t like the choices offered between fear of government vs. fear of business.  If you fear socialist-style, crony capitalism how do you answer the question either/or?  It seems to me you would fear the collusion of government and business together. 

  9. Severely Ltd.
    Paul A. Rahe: Here’s a thought, James. The whole thing may have to do with a fear of Obamacare. This thing has really unsettled people. I am guessing, however. · Jan 1 at 4:51pm

    Yes, this.

  10. James Of England
    Paul A. Rahe: Here’s a thought, James. The whole thing may have to do with a fear of Obamacare. This thing has really unsettled people. I am guessing, however. · 

    Right. This was kind of what I meant by taking solace from Gov. Manchin’s success. And, honestly, it’s probably a bit of both. Part disillusionment with Obama not having fixed all the bad things about government, which must have made some of the fear go away (having your guys running things always makes them less scary), ie disappointment in Obama’s moderation, part disappointment his in lack of moderation. 

    As an example I didn’t list above: They don’t like big government taking their pot. At the beginning of the Obama administration, some prominent liberals, mentioning no compatriot names, really thought that he would “end the war on drugs”, at least with regard to organic medical stuff. As such, the government ceases to be scary (plus, if he had any idea that he might get the personalized get out of jail free card that he ended up getting, that must have been reassuring). Now it looks like he’s sane, they worry about government again.

  11. HeartofAmerica

    Perhaps, but you wouldn’t know it by talking with my in-laws. Thanksgiving and Christmas were such fun listening to them bash Republicans for ganging up on Obama and not allowing him to the ability to be successful. For dessert, we got to listen to them talk about the wonders of Obamacare and how they can’t wait for all of it to go into effect. One family member who has had cancer is counting the days until the policy forbids insurance companies from denying coverage. What they don’t realize or conveniently forgetting is while she may be able to get the coverage, she won’t be able to afford it which is exactly where she is today. My brother-in-law, who retired in his mid-50′s, apparently did so with the “knowledge” that a Democrat would soon take the helm and he would get “free” healthcare. Finally, we had to listen to a diatribe about the poor disenfranchised minority voter who might be required to provide ID to vote. Big government is welcome and enjoyed by them. Yes, indeed it was a wonderful holiday season.

  12. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    DocJay: Mr Rahe, people indeed are scared of Obamacare( I’m frightened to no end), but the insurance, pharmacy, tort, and hospital industry signed on to it. Do not sell the Ayn Randian nightmare short for it is upon us. · Jan 1 at 5:01pm

    They were indeed bought.

  13. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Severely Ltd.

    James Of England: 

    If this poll had been taken under W, I would be more inclined to your view, but the Tea Party has since framed the term “big government” as onerous regulation, heavy taxation and wasteful spending (this last could be spun either way, I admit). The MSM went out of their way to show the waving signs and interview the “extremists” making their crazy case. Do you think that Democrats were unaware of that message and its ties to the phrase? I admit that it’s almost too good to believe that they would be coming around and consciously agreeing with the conservative message, but maybe the state of the economy has scared more than a few over to rationality. A man can dream can’t he? I’m going to be heartened by this news for the time being. · Jan 1 at 5:11pm

    This seems right to me.

  14. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    ~Paules: I don’t like the choices offered between fear of government vs. fear of business.  If you fear socialist-style, crony capitalism how do you answer the question either/or?  It seems to me you would fear the collusion of government and business together.  · Jan 1 at 5:13pm

    In such a case, government is always on top. In the face of the politicians, the businessmen are craven. They know only too well what could be done to them.

  15. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Western Chauvinist: Wanna bet Democrats are beginning to fear big government because they sense a Republican takeover in the offing? It is the nature of progressives left and right to only fear big government when the opposition is commanding it.

    Did anyone else find the juxtaposition of Kevin Williamson’s NRO article (Repo Men) about Romney’s campaign being financed by Wall Street (after having bought Obama the job in 2008) with Ramesh Ponnuru’s advocacy for Romney in the very next article (Romney’s the One) more than a little interesting? It’s NRO’s tacit admission that Romney is a democratic corporatist, and yet the best Republicans have to offer this cycle.

    There is nothing more depressing to me than lost potential. Barring some kind of miracle, that’s how I’ll see 2012. · Jan 1 at 8:03pm

    Me, too.

  16. Sisyphus
    Paul A. Rahe

    DocJay: Mr Rahe, people indeed are scared of Obamacare( I’m frightened to no end), but the insurance, pharmacy, tort, and hospital industry signed on to it. Do not sell the Ayn Randian nightmare short for it is upon us.

    They were indeed bought.

    Seems to me it was not much carrot and a whole lot of stick, administered when the Democrats were celebrating near total ascendancy in Washington. Not that corporate medicine is in any way saintly, but the dogs of single payer were a standing threat right to the passage. The medical industry as a whole has done what it needs to do to survive and wait out the madness.

  17. Western Chauvinist

    Wanna bet Democrats are beginning to fear big government because they sense a Republican takeover in the offing? It is the nature of progressives left and right to only fear big government when the opposition is commanding it.

    Did anyone else find the juxtaposition of Kevin Williamson’s NRO article (Repo Men) about Romney’s campaign being financed by Wall Street (after having bought Obama the job in 2008) with Ramesh Ponnuru’s advocacy for Romney in the very next article (Romney’s the One) more than a little interesting? It’s NRO’s tacit admission that Romney is a democratic corporatist, and yet the best Republicans have to offer this cycle.

    There is nothing more depressing to me than lost potential. Barring some kind of miracle, that’s how I’ll see 2012.

  18. DocJay

    Sisyphus. Good point. No question they were bullied( except tort, my goodness I hate the ATLA). Reid/Rahm went to each industry with threats to remove lucrative privileges and they wilted like dandelions.

  19. Ralph Baskett

    Reagan asked, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” The implicit premises are that the individual can judge these things for himself and that his condition is representative of the general condition.  The challenge stimulates a response.  The listener becomes the interlocutor.  He must set a standard of what he considers good and evaluate his own situation in light of that standard. He must make an argument and give reasons why the answer implied by the question is incorrect. The question in ever-present and unavoidable.   Even President Obama could not avoid trying to answer the question to excuse his performance.   

    President Obama’s campaign strategy is to blame businesses and the wealthy.  Republicans have a multitude of examples of how the Obama administration has deepened the current malaise, but they should also follow Reagan’s example and connect the individual good to the common good.  They should frequently remind their audience, “You can judge these things for yourselves based on your own understanding.  Consider, what are your chances of getting a raise while President Obama punishes the businessmen you work for with higher taxes and oppressive regulations?”

    Or, perhaps someone can formulate a better question.

  20. BlueAnt

    If we focus on the word “fear”, government should logically win, because it is much harder to fight a government than to fight a corporation.  After all, 99% of business assets are protected by the government’s (sometimes selective) enforcement of property rights.

    If you’re fighting a rogue corporation, you file a lawsuit.  If you’re fighting a rogue government, you’ve got a war on your hands.

    If the respondents treated the word “fear” as a proxy for mere distrust, then sure, we might view big business as less opaque than a government subject to FOIA requests.  But then that trend against government indicates something more troubling than mere grumpy sentiment.  A democratic government that loses the trust of its constituents is losing the legitimacy of its power.