Americans have long had a schizophrenic attitude towards government. It is disliked, and held in contempt. It is incompetent and cannot be trusted. It demands too much money in taxes, and then wastes most of what it takes in.
Of course, when an oil well explodes in the Gulf of Mexico, tainted food is found in a supermarket, schoolchildren record less-than-ideal test scores or a drug problem develops in a city large or small the first question many of these same naysayers demand an answer to is: what is the government going to do about it?
Americans, it often seems, hate the idea of their government more than they hate the real government they have. They complain about Congress, while regularly re-electing their congressmen. They fixate on spending and generally believe that they pay too much in taxes, but are always eager for government assistance if it promises to make their lives easier.
Should a politician try to cut any popular benefit programme the people who say government is far too big and must be slimmed down are often the first in line to protest. Though they routinely complain about bloated government, many Americans are unwilling to consider addressing that bloat if doing so might affect them personally.
This mindset has a long history in the US, but in its modern form it is mostly the work of former US president Ronald Reagan. Government, Reagan famously said, is not the solution. It is the problem. In the 30 years since Reagan entered the White House this mantra has been repeated so often that, for many Americans, it has become something close to dogma.
If you seek to understand America in 2010 during these last two weeks prior to the midterm elections it is important to understand how profoundly Reagan shifted the country's political conversation.
Before Reagan, policy discussions focused on the proper role of government in any given problem. The left might see more government involvement and regulation as the best way to address a given problem. The right might advocate less regulation or none at all. But in most cases the topic was seen as being a fair subject for discussion.
Today Reagan's heirs have reduced his philosophy to a parody of itself: government is always wrong. The market is always right. The shocking thing, however, is not that Democrats' efforts to counter Reagan's ideology have, for two generations, been relatively weak. It is that, in many respects, Democrats no longer argue the point.
Unable to create jobs
This summer I watched Democratic candidates running in primaries — i.e. running against other Democrats for their party's nomination for high office — say repeatedly that government is unable to create jobs. Not that this particular government, the Obama administration, was bad at creating jobs — but that it is impossible for government, as an entity, to do so, regardless of who is in charge.
This, of course, is nonsense. Governments create jobs all the time, most obviously through infrastructure spending (something much of America is sorely in need of). Yet this nonsense did not come from politicians' mouths in a combative or ideological way. It was stated as a simple, even self-evident, fact — this, in rooms filled only with Democratic voters.
US President Barack Obama understands this. At the height of the 2008 primary season he caused a stir among Democrats by giving an interview in which he seemed to praise Reagan, referring to the '80s president as a man who "changed the trajectory of American politics".
His comment was accurate, but also ironic, because the trajectory the country has taken since Reagan is one of the main things causing Obama problems today. A telling illustration of this came last week in the form of a Washington Post-Harvard-Kaiser Family Foundation poll that sought to examine voters' attitude toward government. Among elderly voters who describe themselves as interested in politics fully 40 per cent "say the federal government has a big and negative effect on their lives," the Post reported, citing the survey. Yet it is elderly voters who are the greatest beneficiaries of the government's largess, via Social Security (old age pensions) and Medicare — America's health care system for the elderly.
Voters seem to be saying: The deficit is out of control and needs to be fixed — but not at the expense of my own benefits — and, in any case, the government can't fix this or anything else because it has always been incompetent and always will be.
How, exactly, is any intellectually honest person seeking public office supposed to deal with that?
Gordon Robison is a writer and commentator who has covered the Middle East for print, radio and television since the 1980s, including assignments for ABC News, CNN and Fox. He has also taught Islamic History at Emerson College and Middle East Politics at the University of Vermont.