Opinion | Campaign

Americans hate 'big government' until they experience the benefits

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Progressives should build on the basic building blocks of policy to combat the existential dread of "big government."

The Gallup Organization asks Americans annually whether they want government to do more to solve the big problems facing the nation or if it is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals. 

Last week, a new Gallup survey found that most Americans want less government. Most years, Gallup has found the same thing even as government programs like Social Security and Medicare continue to prosper and remain very popular. 

The new Gallup poll energized Republicans in Washington, D.C. who are engaged in a feverish battle to stop government expansion and discouraged Democrats who are fighting for the passage of President Biden's Build Back Better act.

But it's time for the GOP to face reality and for Democrats to get going. Two weeks ago, overwhelming numbers of people told CBS News pollsters that they supported key provisions of the Biden plan that would significantly expand the role of the federal government in the economy.

The inconsistency between the two surveys reveals the split public personality. Two social psychologists Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril once wrote that Americans are both "ideological conservatives and operational liberals".

Free and Cantril believed that Americans have an innate hostility toward strong national governments. The ancestors of many Americans came here after fleeing oppressive national regimes. Dreadful experiences in their ancestral homes conditioned new Americans to be suspicious of big government. 

But the exiles came to the United States with high hopes for a better life, which they eventually received from the United States government with the coming of the New Deal that produced Social Security and The Great Society that brought forth Medicare. Every GOP attempt to undermine these policies have crashed and burned unceremoniously.

This split political personality explains the volatility of politics and the sharp swings in party performance.

The battle between the two parties is a fight between basic instinct and real life. The public fears the worst about big government but wants the best it can get from it. This accounts for the hostility to big government that travels side by side with the strong attachment to socialism for seniors, also known as Medicare. 

Americans get queasy when they think about big government. But once they get to see, touch and feel specific programs, their stomachs settle - and they develop a voracious appetite for programs. The 2010 Affordable Care Act dubbed "Obamacare" became law after a long and vicious struggle. But the Affordable Care Act has become popular despite relentless and fruitless GOP attempts to kill the lifesaving law. 

When it comes to the role of the U.S. government, Americans are afraid of jumping into the water but are glad they did after the find the dip in the ocean cool and refreshing. So much so that they never want to get out. 

That's why it's so important for Democrats to build on the success of previous government programs like Medicare. One of the smartest things Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) ever did is to call his plan for expanding health care to everyone, Medicare For All. Once Americans get used to government programs that work for them, they let their ideological guard down, which scares the hell out of conservatives. 

The moral of this story for Biden: The best antidote to generic hostility to big government is to focus on the specific benefits of the Build Back Better bill.

The public won't buy the proverbial pig in the poke from Uncle Sam, but people are willing to pay the cost of beneficial programs provided by the U.S. government especially if wealthy Americans pay their fair share.

The good news is that Americans overwhelmingly support ideas like reduced prescription drug prices and improved dental, eye and hearing care for seniors that are part of the legislation. The bad news is that most people knew about the cost of the proposal, but few knew about the presence of these programs in the bill.

Familiarity with the Biden proposal breeds fondness not contempt for the big and bold Biden agenda. The white noise about big bad government scares some Democrats but the party must find a way to cut through the hysteria about big government and focus on the basic building blocks of Build Back Better.

Brad Bannon is a Democratic pollster and CEO of Bannon Communications Research. His podcast, "Deadline D.C. with Brad Bannon," airs on Periscope TV and the Progressive Voices Network. Follow him on Twitter: @BradBannon

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