A Thought On the Latest Video Making the Rounds

October 18, 2012

There’s a new video making the rounds among Democrats. It’s not Mitt Romney at a fundraiser, but it contributes to the same discussion. The clip* is of FDR in 1936 warning the public not to believe Republican claims of support for Social Security, or that their approach “won’t cost anybody anything.” Now, I’m sure DailyKos and RedState could debate the various interpretations of these words until the 2036 election, but what’s most striking is that nearly the same speech could be given by a Democrat today. With all that has changed, many ideological battle lines haven’t shifted in 76 years.

I don’t mean to suggest nothing is different. FDR managed to hold a coalition of Southern whites and multi-ethnic Northerners together for four elections in a row. His platform allowed him to carry Alabama and Massachusetts. But at the heart of his approach was an activist federal government -- something that made Republicans wary, then and now. When the public mood is anti-government, as in 1980, the conservative position is clear and easy. As Reagan said, “Government is not the solution to our problems, government is the problem.” Democrats are forced into uncomfortable, defensive answers about things the national government should do, while simultaneously agreeing that we must keep it strictly limited. At other moments, when the public yearns for solutions from any quarter, including the government, the roles are reversed and Republicans must explain why their limited-government ideology should trump aggressive actions to solve the nation’s problems.

So where is the pendulum in 2012? There is clearly -- as is almost always the case -- a distaste for the abstract notion of an overly powerful federal government. People hate Congress, have contempt for bureaucrats, and doubt the efficiency of social programs. But that is, somehow, different from wanting or not wanting the government to intervene to address their problems. I think at this moment, people’s anxiety about the problems of the country – unemployment, health care insecurity, home values – outweigh any philosophical hesitation about who solves those problems. Whoever can fix it, should fix it. And, given that there is high voter distrust of other large institutions (banks, corporations, the press), the federal government might as well try to do the job.

Outside of libertarians and doctrinaire conservatives, I think there is actually very little opposition to the idea that government should be active in the economy and society. People will tell a pollster that they mistrust government, in part because it fits with their view of themselves as self-reliant individuals, but most don’t really want a withdrawal of government action and support. It’s a “Government Hands Off My Medicare!” sentiment. Most people are solution-oriented, not process-oriented. Their respect for the private sector, and disdain for government’s ability to deliver services efficiently, sits comfortably next to their acknowledgement of the need for government action. They may not like the DMV, but they think we should require drivers’ licenses and want one for themselves.

*Here's the FDR clip: (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N3aO_s0Yuv8)

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