I remember a time when liberals were the people who used government as a democratic counterweight to the abuses of capitalism, and conservatives were those close to big business who wanted to limit government. Liberals also recognized, with the Framers of the Constitution, that government had to be strong enough to protect the rights of the weak. Conservatives didn't like the power of the state, but were fine with concentrated private power.
Yes, there were inconsistencies and exceptions on both sides, but there was a philosophical coherence to it. And when regular people got mobilized and attractive candidates appeared, we could even elect leaders who would direct government for the public good.
But, lately the lines have blurred. The old, stylized picture of what liberals and conservatives want of government doesn't mean much, especially to younger Americans, because they have seldom experienced it.
Consider: An administration currently run by supposed liberals thinks that it's ok for government to secretly seize phone and Internet records of citizens, without the kind of explicit search warrant contemplated by the Fourth Amendment. The conservatives who controlled the federal government in the Bush administration were even more cavalier about trampling citizen rights. You have to go to the libertarian right (Rand Paul) and the progressive left (Bernie Sanders, Jeff Merkley) to find support for containing the national security state.
And the whistle blower who raised the curtain on some of the NSA's secret data-mining program? Edward Snowden worked for a government contractor, Booz-Allen-Hamilton. More and more of the government is being contracted out and privatized, even the most sensitive state secrets, not to mention basic public services. Even the U.S. armed forces depend increasingly on private mercenaries.
Far from being a counterweight to economic elites who invoke the freedom of markets, government has gotten into bed with those elites. Democrats are almost as corrupt as Republicans when it comes to raising money from the very rich, at using public service as a gateway to careers in private lobbying, at turning over public functions to private interests.
Once conservatives supported balanced budgets, while liberals were willing to use deficits to finance public investments to dig out of economic slumps. Today's conservatives run up deficits as a way of clubbing government, and liberals in the White House cut public spending as a way of showing fiscal responsibility. No wonder voters are baffled about who really stands for what.
The financial collapse and presidential election of 2008 were a moment for political reformers to dismantle the Wall Street power that caused the financial collapse and did such damage to ordinary people. But the moment passed with only feeble reforms, which are being dismantled daily as lobbyists eat away at the regulations to carry out the ambiguous constraints of the Dodd-Frank Act. Liberals would like to support their government in its effort to clean up Wall Street, but Wall Street is inside the government.
Or consider the public services that provide security and opportunity to regular people -- things like schools. A supposedly liberal administration has joined the assault against public schools, using the carrot of federal money to induce states and towns to shift to charter schools and hobbling public schools with teach-to-the-test requirements.
In embracing universal pre-kindergarten as a signature initiative in his State of the Union message, President Obama did not propose expanding public schools one year downward. Instead, his program, if enacted, would underwrite a patchwork of private preschools, church basements, and the occasional genuine early kindergarten.
A health reform that professes to use government to move us closer to universal insurance coverage is actually a command for people to buy insurance from private industry, which is fatter and less efficient than ever. Government is less of a counterweight than an enabler.
A liberal national administration has colluded with conservatives in failing to help state and local government bridge over economic recession without crippling layoffs. This is the first recession in a century when government employment and public services were cut rather than expanded to compensate for the weakness of the private sector.
Take enough resources away from government, and it becomes too enfeebled to do its job for regular people. Citizens then give up on government. Why throw good money after bad?
Both parties outdo each other to give away tax breaks to business. The tax breaks have little tonic effect on a depressed economy, but deny government needed revenue. Neither party has the nerve to mount a serious offensive against corporate tax cheats. Then both parties condemn deficits and cut government further.
An Internal Revenue Service, stripped of personnel and overwhelmed with applications for tax-exempt status, many of them from explicitly political groups that could not properly qualify, resorted to indefensible short cuts based on labels. The IRS went on auto-pilot. Bad management of a sensitive public agency gives the right ammunition and only further undermines trust in government.
We have almost reached a tipping point where majorities of Americans who want to government to be on their side look in vain for a government that actually serves them. Meanwhile, the national security state is more overweening than ever.
I'm glad that Barack Obama rather than Mitt Romney is president, and I'm grateful for clearheaded Democrats such as those of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. But when Democrats deliver such a mixed message about the proper role of government, it's that much easier for politicians to run against Washington in general and the public is bewildered.
Instead of having a government that delivers practical help while restraining its own excesses, we have one that is doing far too little to keep us economically secure and far too much in the name of keeping us safe. No wonder our politics is a muddled mess.
Robert Kuttner's new book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility. He is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior Fellow at Demos.