It’s the People leading the Parties–not the other way round

It’s the People leading the Parties—

Not the other way round

By Marcia Pally

 Published in Die Zeit,October 14, 2010

            The emails keep arriving from overseas: what, they want to know, is going on over there? It seems to the rest of the world that Americans don’t want their government to help them out—though they are mired in economic crisis—and so we have fallen into a mad, anti-government frenzy. Americans seem to want “small government,” little regulation of the market, and to return taxes to “the people.” In the November, 2010 congressional elections, this means votes for the Republicans, who will cut taxes for the rich (Obama has already cut taxes for everyone else), reduce programs for the needy, shrink government stimulus spending, and require less social responsibility from corporations. Or it means votes for the even more anti-government, tea-party candidates, who want also to jettison Social Security and Medicare. They think the Republican plan is not small-government enough.

            But, my friends in Europe say, this cannot be true.

            It is.

            Then it must be the result of well-funded Republican brainwashing.

            Maybe not.

To be sure, the Republicans are wooing voters with media campaigns funded by business associations like the Blackstone Group, front organizations with anonymous donors ( such as American for Prosperity, Americans for Job Security), and billionaires like the  Koch brothers and Rupert Murdoch. But this is because they fear that voters won’t find the Republican platform small-government enough. The Republicans are running after voters, who are already avidly small-government–not trying to persuade voters to become small-government. The Republicans, in short, are fighting a rear-guard action, using the funds of the rich to appear populist, while the populace is out ahead, hoping to throw out the entire corrupt club of politicians, lobbyists and the rich. In a year, tea-party-ers have grown to 11-12% of the population. Of 18 Senate races in 2010 where the outcome was unclear, tea-party candidates are key in 11; in the House, in 48 of 104.

If politicians are corrupt, why not vote in better ones? Why vote all politicans out in an anti-government sweep? Isn’t social betterment government’s responsibility?

You’re kidding me. Americans haven’t believed in honest government since the Sons of Liberty tarred-and-feathered the British governor ofMassachusetts. We are a nation born in revolt against “big government” in London, a nation whose anti-authoritarian do-it-yourself-ism was nurtured in 350 years of frontier and in the individualist self-responsibility of Protestantism. The American Dream is not only moving up but up by your own bootstraps. No sissy help from the state, which is not only corrupt but incompetent. Both Bush and Obama gave billions to the banks while people lost their jobs. Ride ‘em out of town!

This diagnosis is not exactly wrong, but the anti-government cure is Ur America. While “small government” and light regulation of the market benefits business, Americans don’t mind because they believe the open field of unregulated opportunity benefits them as well. This is why we today have not only small-government Republicans (some are moderates on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage; some are conservative) but also small-government Democrats (some are moderates on abortion and gay marriage; some conservative; some progressive).

Democrats? Aren’t they big-government-ers? Didn’t the Democrat Franklin Roosevelt do massive stimulus spending during the Depression? What about Lyndon Johnson’s 1960s Civil Rights and anti-poverty programs?

That was then; this is now. And “then”—1933-1965–was anomalous in US history. Before ‘33, the Democrats were so closely linked to business interests–and thus to “small government”– that it was the Republicans of the Progressive Era (1900-1912) who broke up the monopolies and began labor reforms. But during the Depression, the idea gained ground that–while individual liberty was still key and individual opportunity still the priority–the government was responsible for helping him use it, even if that meant curbing the rich. On this view, Roosevelt implemented his Keynesian government stimulus programs. However, within two years, he had his own version of the tea-party-ers pressing for… small government. They were so persuasive that two years into his second term, 1938, the Democrats lost heavily in congressional elections.

Once the pressures of the Depression, WWII, and early Cold War had passed, America rode “big government out of town in 1968, voting in ‘small government” Republican presidents until 1992 (save the one-term Jimmy Carter). That year, Clinton could get elected only with an economic program that would have been small-government Republican by Rooseveltian standards. And two years after that, the Newt Gingrich Republicans swept into Congress promising… “small government.”

For Obama, it’s déjà vu all over again.

At present, 53% of mainline Protestants favor the Republicans, 66% of white evangelicals, and 51% of non-Latino Catholics. These are America’s main voting blocs. Though many tea-party-ers feel the Republicans too are big-government and so should be thrown out with the rest of the corrupt pack, the party is gaining ground even with these small-government devout. After all, the Republican party preaches America’s first (anti-government) faith. 76% of tea-party-ers say they will vote Republican or lean towards Republican candidates.

Who’s left?

The latter-day Rooseveltians: a sizable minority (44%) of white Protestants and nearly 80% of America’s smaller demographic groups– Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, unaffiliated believers, and non-believers–who feel the government should help the ordinary guy, even it is means curbing the rich. Also 65% of Latino Catholics and 88% of African-Americans, who rely on government aid. And last, the “new evangelicals,” as they’re called, who have left the Religious Right and moved towards an anti-militarist, anti-consumerist activism with an emphasis on poverty relief and environmental protection. The New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good opposes the tea-parties. The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), 45,000 churches from 50 denominations, demands an economic system “which does not tolerate perpetual poverty.” This means structural improvements in health care, education, and immigration policy. Because of opposition to abortion, many “new evangelicals” will vote Republican. But that means their poverty-relief and environment aims will bring pressure on that party’s future policies.

So that’s what’s going on over here. It’s pretty standard for a democracy: the grassroots are screaming, as they should in an economic crisis. The rich are trying to co-opt them. But when they do, they are using the small-government-ism that the grassroots majority already believes.

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