Recently I debated a conservative Republican who insisted the best way to revive the American economy was to shrink the size of government. When I asked him to explain his logic he said, simply, "government is the source of all our problems." When I noted government spending had brought the economy out of the previous eight economic downturns, including the Great Depression, he disagreed. "The Depression ended because of World War Two," he pronounced, as if government had played no part in it.
A few days later I was confronted by another conservative Republican who blamed the nation's high unemployment rate on the availability of unemployment benefits. "If you pay someone not to work, they won't," he said. When I pointed out unemployment benefits couldn't possibly be the cause of joblessness because there are now about five job seekers for every job opening, he scoffed. "Government always makes things worse."
Government-haters seem to be everywhere.
Congressional Republicans, now led by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, hate government so much they're ready to sacrifice the full faith and credit of the United States in order to shrink it.
Taming the deficit isn't their aim. They rejected Obama's offer to cut $3 trillion of spending over the decade -- including major reductions in entitlement programs -- because his plan would also entail $1 trillion of tax increases. Their ultimate goal, in the words of their guru Grover Norquist, is to take government down to "the size where we can drown it in the bathtub."
Where did this wrecking crew come from? And why do so many Americans seem to support them? To answer "the tea party" begs the question, because the tea party itself is a product of this rage.
Credit the economic fears and insecurities now felt by a broad swathe of the public who want to find a villain for what they're going through. Wall Street is too abstract and the financial games that brought on the Great Recession almost impossible for most Americans to grasp. But the government bailout of the Street was a specific act almost everyone could instinctively understand -- and to most Americans it seemed perversely wrong.
It's no coincidence that the emergence of the tea party coincided with the Wall Street bailout. An acquaintance who has embraced the tea party explained to me she hates government "because it's always captured by the powerful, who take our taxes and eat our lunch."
At the same time most of what government does that helps average people is now so deeply woven into the thread of daily life that it's no longer recognizable as government. Think of the indignant voters who showed up at congressional town meetings to protest Obama's health care bill shouting "don't take away my Medicare!"
A recent paper by Cornell political scientist Suzanne Mettler surveyed how many recipients of government benefits don't really believe they have received any benefits. She found that over 44 percent of Social Security recipients say they "have not used a government social program." More than half of families receiving government-backed student loans said the same thing, as did 60 percent of those who get the home mortgage interest deduction, 43 percent of unemployment insurance beneficiaries, and almost 30 percent of recipients of Social Security Disability.
Add in the relentlessly snide government-hating and baiting of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh and his imitators on rage radio; include more than thirty years of Ronald Reagan's repeated refrain that government is the problem; pile on hundreds of millions of dollars from the likes of oil tycoons Charles and David Koch intent on convincing the public that government is evil, and you have all the ingredients for the emergence of a wrecking-ball right that's intent on destroying government as we know it.
The final critical ingredient has been the abject failure of the Democratic Party -- from the President on down -- to make the case for why government is necessary.
One would have thought the last few years of mine disasters, exploding oil rigs, nuclear meltdowns, malfeasance on Wall Street, wildly-escalating costs of health insurance, rip-roaring CEO pay, and mass layoffs would have offered a singular opportunity to explain why the nation's collective well-being requires a strong and effective government representing the interests of average people.
Yet the case has not been made. Perhaps that's because, even under the Democrats, the interests of average people have not been sufficiently attended to.