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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.