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How can you bridge deep divisions over the role of the state?

Recovering from both a wedding and the stomach flue while awaiting an overdue flight at San Francisco International Airport (and if you’re ever stuck in Terminal 1 at SFO, allow me to recommend Go Bistro’s Asian-fusion-whatever. It doesn’t suck.), I came across USA Today‘s front-page story on Gallup Poll results measuring Americans’ deep differences of opinions over the size and scope of government. Based on the polling data, the article divides our countrymen into five distinct groups that, while still broad, are rather more helpful than the usual red/blue bullshit that is spoken of all-too-often.

• Keep it small: This cohesive group wants government to stay away from regulating the free market or morality. They trust private enterprise over public institutions and overwhelmingly oppose Obama and the Democratic Party. Many support the Tea Party movement.

They are the wealthiest, the most conservative and the most predominantly white and male of any of the groups.

• Morality first: This group also is decidedly Republican, and they don’t endorse a large federal role in addressing income disparities. But they are solidly in favor of the federal government acting to uphold moral standards and promote traditional values.

A Republican governing coalition that includes both the first and second groups could risk fracture when the issues turned from a more limited government on the economic front to questions such as whether to oppose same-sex marriage or restrict abortion.

• The mushy middle: This pragmatic group avoids the extremes. Those in this category split more evenly on attitudes toward the GOP, the Democratic Party and Obama than others.

Ninety-five percent of them end up somewhere in the middle when asked to place themselves on a five-point scale on the proper role of government — “1” meaning the government should provide only the most basic functions and “5” meaning the government should take active steps in every area it could.

• Obama liberals: This group wants the government to take a big role in addressing economic disparities but a small one in upholding moral standards. It is the most suspicious of business: Six in 10 say business will harm society unless regulated by the government.

They are the youngest group and the group with the highest percentage of liberals, Democrats and Obama supporters.

• The bigger the better: The members of this group are the most likely of any to trust government and to endorse its involvement in areas from upholding morality to addressing income inequality.

What’s interesting to me is that the first group, which “wants government to stay away from regulating the free market or morality” — what we could generally call libertarians — makes up 22% of the population. That grouping is directly opposed by the 20% that is “most likely of any to trust government and to endorse its involvement in areas from upholding morality to addressing income inequality.”

So two segments broken out in the poll, making up 42% of the population, hold completely incompatible views about the relationship of the individual to the state. You can’t satisfy one without offending the other.

But the other groups include traditional conservatives who “don’t endorse a large federal role in addressing income disparities. But they are solidly in favor of the federal government acting to uphold moral standards and promote traditional values” and traditional liberals who “wan[t] the government to take a big role in addressing economic disparities but a small one in upholding moral standards.” Their different visions of a more expansive state than that favored by the libertarians are also incompatible.

This leaves us stuck, right? I mean, completely stuck. Americans really want entirely irreconcilable political structures.

I wonder, though …

It’s one thing to want, in abstract terms, the government to do something, and it’s entirely different to deal with a real program with an entrenched bureaucracy — especially if it engages in activity you find excessive or offensive. That is, I wonder if a relatively inactive government doesn’t, over the long term, engender a stronger positive, or at least neutral, response than a relatively active government which might breed the likes of the Tea Party movement. Given the nearly even division in preferences demonstrated in the Gallup Poll, that may suggest a tendency towards somewhat limited government in the United States. Limited government — not minimal government — but limited nevertheless.

Of course, that runs up against the obvious example of the steady growth in the state over past decades, but that may be because we hadn’t hit the (admittedly generous and probably shifting) limit set by the country’s political divisions. And some serious incursions into economic freedom (think trucking and airline prices) as well as civil liberties (think gay rights and the rights of racial minorities) have, in fact, been rolled back.

Or maybe that damned stomach bug just has my mind wandering in strange directions.

Posted in Political Divide

1 Comment

  • I would say that the 10th Amendment is more or less the bridge, which more or less Libertarians favor. Unfortunately, social/religious conservatives, Paleoconservatives/Buchanan-ites and Liberals want all or nothing.

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