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What’s the Vitriol About?

By Matthew Yglesias  

"What’s the Vitriol About?"

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Paul Krugman says there’s no room for middle ground in American politics:

One side of American politics considers the modern welfare state — a private-enterprise economy, but one in which society’s winners are taxed to pay for a social safety net — morally superior to the capitalism red in tooth and claw we had before the New Deal. It’s only right, this side believes, for the affluent to help the less fortunate.

The other side believes that people have a right to keep what they earn, and that taxing them to support others, no matter how needy, amounts to theft. That’s what lies behind the modern right’s fondness for violent rhetoric: many activists on the right really do see taxes and regulation as tyrannical impositions on their liberty.

There’s no middle ground between these views. One side saw health reform, with its subsidized extension of coverage to the uninsured, as fulfilling a moral imperative: wealthy nations, it believed, have an obligation to provide all their citizens with essential care. The other side saw the same reform as a moral outrage, an assault on the right of Americans to spend their money as they choose.

Jon Chait agrees and says this kind of right-wing Randianism is “the question that is driving most of the contemporary divide.”

I sympathize with this argument, but as I said yesterday the strange thing is that so much of this furious opposition to activist government appears to be make-believe. The American Enterprise Institute did a poll of self-identified conservatives and found that “only 3 percent of respondents favored reforming Social Security and Medicare.” The 2010 elections put a lot of new conservative governors in office, and I’m guessing that exactly zero of them will abolish mandatory minimum parking requirements in their states. Nor do I expect to see Rep Frank Lewis slash farm subsidies.

It’s a bit puzzling. The gap is really not just between conservatives and non-conservatives, but between conservatives’ self-image and the reality of their program. Paul Ryan, for example, can’t quite seem to decide if he wants to slow the growth of Medicare while maintaining a credible safety net for elderly Americans (in which case his “roadmap” proposal is the starting point of a discussion) or if he’s an Ayn Rand devotée who’s trying to liberate America from enslavement at the hands of the welfare state. Indeed, he doesn’t really even seem to see that these are different ideas!

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