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Why Bernie bros must understand Americans dislike big government

Why Bernie bros must understand Americans dislike big government
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Do we need a new revolution of sorts in the United States today? Many supporters of Bernie SandersBernie SandersIn defense of incrementalism: A call for radical realism Thomas Piketty says pandemic is opportunity to address income inequality Trump will soon be out of office — but polarization isn't going anywhere MORE think that only big ideas can address the severity of the challenges facing the working and middle classes in our country today. Many also underscore that centrists and incrementalists like Al Gore, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton have one thing in common, which is that they all lost presidential elections when they ran.

Yet there is one issue that many Sanders supporters, as best I can tell, fail to grasp. This could be a major liability against President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden adds to vote margin over Trump after Milwaukee County recount Krebs says allegations of foreign interference in 2020 election 'farcical'  Republicans ready to become deficit hawks again under a President Biden MORE this fall and an enormous obstacle to getting things done even if he is elected. Many of the diagnoses by Sanders of the problems facing Americans are spot on. But some, though not all, of his proposed solutions rely way too much on big government to fix them. The problem, however, is that most Americans simply do not like big government, and they have not for half a century. Those of us old enough to have watched this fact play out in past elections are perhaps more scarred by it than newer generations, helping to explain why Sanders is so popular among young voters today.

The last time Americans really believed Washington could solve most of the problems they attacked was probably during the 1960s, as Lyndon Johnson set forth his Great Society agenda that gave us Medicare and Medicaid, major civil rights legislation, and the Apollo program. Then came the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, furthering national cynicism about government, followed by stagflation and foreign policy setbacks in the 1970s. Ronald Reagan partly changed the public view of government, but largely by running against Washington and by aligning himself only with institutions like the armed forces where Americans do have faith in their government. The politicians of both parties have also learned, sometimes the hard way, to keep their hands off a few very well run programs like Social Security that are indeed widely popular.

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Many state and local programs enjoy widespread support too, especially in areas like infrastructure. But few, if any, successful political leaders of the last half century have embraced expansion of government or of its role in our lives as the primary agent for change. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama experienced difficult political problems thanks to expansionary visions of government in arenas like health care and energy policy.

Polling numbers over the decades back up this national narrative. Public trust in government was in the 75 percent to 80 percent range during the Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, and early Johnson years. However, it started a tremendous nosedive, bottoming out toward the end of Jimmy Carter's presidency at about 25 percent. Reagan restored it somewhat, to around 45 percent, but in the first George Bush and early Clinton years it descended even lower to about 20 percent. The second Clinton term and early years of the second George Bush presidency saw these numbers go above 40 percent again; however, they have never been there since.

The Iraq War, financial meltdown, polarization during the Obama years, and now the Trump presidency have driven public faith in government all the way below 20 percent. I interpret these numbers to signal Americans are wary of big new national programs that would require a substantial expansion of the government bureaucracy or of the federal role in the economy. But none of this disproves the entire Sanders agenda.

Changing things that can be done relatively simply, without the creation or expansion of the government bureaucracy, can still be promising and attractive ideas. These include, raising the minimum wage, changing the tax code to ask more of the rich and relatively less of the working classes, expanding the earned income tax credit, pushing affordable child care, and capping student debt burdens but not necessarily eliminating loans altogether. On these kinds of initiatives, a political leader can achieve big change without more big government. Some of them may well be worth the money, or at least some of it, that Sanders proposes to spend.

But other parts of the Sanders agenda are much more problematic. The Green New Deal is one case in point. In trying to establish Medicare for All, Sanders would dramatically expand the federal role in the economy. Whatever the merits in principle of this idea, Americans will be very wary of that path to universal health insurance coverage. If our country makes it to Medicare for All, it will be through an evolutionary process where a public option for health insurance is created and made appealing enough that people vote with their feet over time, so to speak, thus increasingly discarding their private health insurance in favor of a potentially better system, but without having Washington rapidly and radically take over nearly 20 percent of the national economy in one easy fell swoop.

This also suggests a path forward for unifying Democrats, particularly if Joe Biden wins the nomination and Sanders supporters feel disappointed or even abandoned. Biden can and should emphasize those issues of the Sanders agenda that do not require the unwelcome hand of Washington to play a major role in creating and administering new programs. Go big on tax rates, income inequality, minimum wage, and student loans. But also keep things simple and ensure that the federal bureaucracy will stay as small as possible throughout the process. That is a unifying national agenda that perhaps even many Republicans could support this fall.

Michael O’Hanlon is a senior policy fellow with the Brookings Institution.