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Bad News for People Who Like Big Government

The current issue of The American Prospect is the first one produced in years where I haven’t been present at editorial meetings where people discussing upcoming articles, thus ruining the surprise when the issue actually comes out. Thus imagine my shock when I discovered it included not one, but two articles indicating that despite the public’s recent leftward turn and the relatively bright prospects for Democratic gains in 2008, that there’s a great deal of voter skepticism about large new government programs. First, John Judis and Ruy Teixeira warn that the “Emerging Democratic Majority” requires the support of independent voters whose appetite for big government is limited:

The new Democratic coalition is center-left; independents are more toward the center, especially on fiscal and economic issues, than Democratic identifiers are. In California, independents backed moderate Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in November 2006 by virtually the same margin they had given John Kerry over George W. Bush in 2004. Democrats will continue to attract independents — and independents will make up a significant ideological segment of the Democratic majority — so long as Democrats don’t forget the “center” part of center-left and so long as Republicans remain on the right, especially on social issues.

In the second article, Stanley Greenberg reports:

The results of a February study we conducted for Democracy Corps that assessed people’s attitudes toward government stunned us. By 57 percent to 29 percent, Americans believe that government makes it harder for people to get ahead in life instead of helping people. Sixty-two percent in a Pew study said they believe elected officials don’t care what people like them think, and the same number believe that whenever something is run by the government it is probably inefficient and wasteful. The Democracy Corps study found that an emphatic 83 percent say that if the government had more money, it would waste it rather than spend it well.

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I could imagine finding grounds on which to quibble with these results, but considering the source they’re pretty striking and seem pretty firm to me. Ed Kilgore looks at these same article and concludes that Democrats need to embrace a tough reform agenda to rebuild public faith in the possibility of effective government action:

Some Democrats understandably hope that “Happy Days Are Here Again” in terms of progressive public activism, and many may well think of “accountability in government” as a 1990s gimmick or even as an accomodation of conservative anti-government sentiment. But as Greenberg shows and passionately argues, progressive cannot rescue the country from the Bush disaster unless we first clearly re-establish our own, and government’s, ability to get things done right.

I don’t think we should create false choices here. Something like Barack Obama’s just-announced good government agenda strikes me as both a fairly pointless gimmick and a an accommodation of conservative anti-government sentiment. But it’s also probably a good gimmick that could help those who embrace it to win elections. A gimmick, after all, isn’t necessarily a bad thing to have in a campaign.