"The government is not the solution to our problem. the government is the problem. "
President Ronald Reagan made these words in his inaugural speech to the country in 1981. He spoke more particularly of the role of the government in the end of the American crisis. But since then, it has become a sort of widespread truism in Republican circles. The government is a perennial boogeyman and the main political goal on the right is to reduce the role of government in public life.
But there is a problem: there are many who accept this dogma who need the government the most. Research shows, for example, that Republican states are disproportionately dependent on federal aid. Yet many Republican voters seem perfectly unaware of this contradiction.
In his new book The government-citizen disconnectThe political scientist Suzanne Mettler of Cornell examines this paradox. It examines the government's historical data as well as surveys of Americans' experiences with 21 federal social policies, including food stamps, social security, Medicaid and deduction of interest on mortgages.
And what she found was fascinating: It turns out that people's attitude toward social assistance is a strong predictor of how they will vote. But more interestingly, the types of federal benefits that people receive – whether they are "visible" like food stamps and Medicaid or "invisible" as tax breaks – influence their perception of their own dependence on social protection programs.
I called Mettler to tell her about her findings and why she thinks the government-citizen connection is a real threat to American democracy. A slightly modified transcript of our conversation follows.
Your book focuses on a contradiction at the center of our policy: the gap between the citizens and the government on which they rely. How has this paradox evolved? How have people become so far from their government?
We are in this strange situation in which people have to rely more and more on the government, while the government is less and less in need of people. Now, you expect this to mean that people's attitudes towards the government have become favorable, but the opposite is true. And that's the paradox I'm confronted with in the book.
It turns out that the benefit that a person actually derives from government services has very little importance in shaping his attitude towards the government. And this is true even when controlling all kinds of other factors.
But there was one factor in particular that made a big difference in predicting someone's point of view on the government, right?
Yes, it was people's attitude to social assistance. About 44% of Americans have an unfavorable view of social assistance. And people who have very negative views on social well-being have strong attitudes towards government that are shaped by this view. They believe that social assistance is unfair or that people who do not deserve it benefit, and deserving people like themselves do not get anything.
People who have this deeply negative perception of well-being arouse much resentment, and this perception determines their vision of government more than anything else. They are blind to their own relationship with the government, so they assume that social assistance is something "other" than people.
"If citizens withdraw from public life, the only ones who have power in society are those who have a lot of economic power"
I have to address the giant elephant in the room. When we talk about social assistance and how people perceive it, we talk about race. And you often find that people do not necessarily oppose social assistance; they oppose social assistance going to the external group, to the "others". Does this agree with your conclusions?
Yes. The breed is important, and many other researchers have discovered it as well. In general, whites had a more negative view of social assistance than people of color, largely because they viewed social assistance as something that people of color benefited mainly.
I also found that income counted a lot. All middle class groups had a very unfavorable view of social assistance. Even African-Americans, if they belonged to the middle class, were more resentful of welfare than low- and high-income African-Americans.
So we have these parallel models going on at once. As you mentioned, there is a racial bias, followed by the opinion of middle-income people. The last decades have been particularly difficult for the middle class. Productivity is very high, people work more hours than ever and incomes stagnate. Many of these people feel trapped between the poor, who enjoy many benefits, and the rich, who do not need help.
Can you give me an idea of the evolution of public attitudes towards the government over the last three or four decades? And how does it break down left and right?
If you go back to the middle of the 20th century, many survey questions were asked in the same way, over time, as in the 1940s or so. Previously, the majority of Americans, like over 60 or 70% in the 50s and 60s, had very positive answers to questions about trust in government.
But then the Vietnam War and Watergate begin to deteriorate and you will see a downward slide. There was a slight rise in the 1980s and a little back and forth in the 1990s. After September 11, the country unites briefly, but basically, it's a trend line to the decline for all these indicators.
Today, about one in five Americans has a positive view of government. About one in five think that public servants are sensitive to people like them, which is more or less true among parties. I think there are different reasons why people from each end of the political spectrum do not like the government, but there is a lot of dislike for the government around the world.
"We need to find a way to regain that sense of government as an instrument of good in our lives and we must stop seeing it as the enemy."
In the book, you quote Mitt Romney's famous "47%" commentary in 2013, in which he said that 47% of the population depended on the government and would vote for the Democratic candidate, anyway. But the data shows that it is the so-called "Red States" that contribute the least to the federal coffers and that depend the most on federal services – and of course, almost all of these states voted for Romney. What is happening here?
Yes, it's pretty frustrating. I spent a lot of time looking at the state of Kentucky to try to understand this. Kentucky is a very bad state. And when you look at the congressional districts, you find a group of them where an average person gets more than 30, 40 or 50 percent of his income from his federal welfare benefits.
Yet, these same districts are electing very conservative members of Congress who promise to introduce work requirements for food stamps and repeal the Affordable Care Act and so on. It's really confusing.
I think there are several things that could explain this. First, I found that people with more visible social programs, such as food stamps, are much less likely to vote.
This is not a big surprise. We have known for some time that people with high incomes and higher socioeconomic status tend to vote more often. They tend to be more mobilized by groups and public officials and they are more involved, and they tend to be less aware of how they benefit from social services.
We should explain a little more this gap in participation. We therefore know that people who know and appreciate the role of government in life through benefits are less likely to participate in politics, and those who use these benefits, but do not recognize the role of government in providing them with the way to vote. What explains this?
The people who participate the most in politics, usually the more educated and resourceful, rely on many government benefits, but these benefits are often hidden in the tax code or disguised by a government. another way. So they do not think that the government has given them much personally.
But those who are most aware that the government has helped them tend to be the ones who have resorted to more visible policies like vouchers, subsidized housing or Medicaid. The reasons are quite simple.
People with more resources have more time and are part of social networks that encourage them to participate. Managers and organizations also request it. We simply do not see that kind of incentive for low-income people.
Much of this story concerns the relentless efforts of organizations and political activists such as the Koch brothers, who spend a lot of money to convince people that the government is their enemy. The people they target have almost nothing in common with the special interests that manipulate them, but the propaganda is effective.
As a political scientist, I would have thought that everyone's personal experiences could interfere with that. If the government helped you pay for school fees or health care or prevented your grandmother from falling into poverty when she was a citizen, you might think that it would overcome the messages that people receive from special interests.
But I found that these personal experiences mattered little, unless someone connects the points between them, unless someone shows these connections.
Well, that's precisely what I mean: innumerable forces, many of whom operate behind the scenes, invest in obscuring these connections, making sure that people do not connect it.
You are absolutely right about it. There are many obscurations and distractions. People are encouraged to focus on all kinds of secondary problems or cultural war problems or anything that distracts their attention from these fundamental connections.
I often have the feeling that we are locked in a brutal self-fulfilling cycle here. What we have seen time and time again in states like, for example, Louisiana and Kansas, is that Republican administrations deliberately undermined social policies such as that of Obamacare, and then showed that the dysfunction that would be the proof of the evil inherent in the government.
It's true, and there's another story to tell, that the government has helped people in many ways and does it every day with all these benefits. But this story is not told and we find ourselves in this place with many Americans who are philosophical conservatives but utilitarian liberals.
Can you explain what you mean by that?
When people ask themselves general questions about the size of the government, or if they approve larger taxes, they look pretty conservative. But when they are asked more concrete questions about the financing of social security or unemployment insurance, they seem rather liberal.
So when you go deeper, you find that people appreciate these benefits, but when the political game is played in such a way as to draw people's attention to abstractions, the Conservatives win. And when the Liberals manage to draw attention to details, they win.
"If we become more and more anti-government, we are against ourselves. We are against our own collective ability to do anything. "
Do you think it 's mainly information? If we could take all those people who do not know what the government is actually doing for and for them, sit in front of a screen and tell them the truth, do you think that would change anything?
I think information can help, but I think we should not exaggerate how much it helps. The new information only helps those who are really open to it, and the truth is that many people are not. We are in this very partisan environment where it is important for people who convey a message, and there is not much confidence.
I came to the conclusion that relationships are more important. And I think organizations need to make these things much clearer for people in their daily lives. I also think that as citizens, we need to rethink the way we talk about our lives and the role the government has played in it.
I see government-citizen decoupling as an existential threat to our liberal democracy, as it destroys the very foundation of citizenship and makes it almost impossible to respond to growing income inequality. Is that how you see it?
I agree that the mismatch between the government and the citizens makes it very difficult for any constructive government action on economic inequality, but it is not just that. It actually undermines the government's ability to do a lot of things.
The government is what we have in common, our common ability to do something to overcome what political scientists call "problems of collective action." – that is to say, the disincentives inherent in the collaboration for the common good. These are problems that can not be solved by your church, your family, your businesses, or other organizations. They require government action.
In the United States, we have this story and this aspiration of a democratic government. It's all about us and what we can do together. So, if we become more and more anti-government, we are against ourselves. We are against our own collective ability to do anything.
So, no matter what it is. It could be economic inequality, climate change or the restoration of infrastructure. We can not solve any of these problems without government. And if citizens withdraw from public life, the only ones who have power in society are those with a lot of economic power. That's why I find it deeply troubling.
So where are we? How can we bridge the gap between citizens and government?
We must change the story. We must think about the role the government has played in our own lives. We need to talk to friends and family about the role the government has played in their lives and help them see the connections.
I ask my students to interview a family member, preferably the eldest member of their family, who grew up in the United States, and ask them questions about the role of government in their lives through public policies. They come back after learning all kinds of things they did not know about how a public policy like the GI Bill allowed that person to be the first of his family to go to university and how that changed forever. destiny of the family.
So we need to find a way to regain this sense of government as an instrument of good in our lives, and we must stop seeing it as the enemy. Otherwise, we can not reform and move forward as a democracy.
This article was published on August 17, 2018.