Published March 2, 2010
This is an eye-catcher:
A majority of Americans think the federal government poses a threat to the rights of Americans, according to a new national poll. Fifty-six percent of people questioned in a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey released Friday say they think the federal government has become so large and powerful that it poses an immediate threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens. Forty-four percent of those polled disagree. The survey indicates a partisan divide on the question: only 37 percent of Democrats, but nearly 7 in 10 Republicans, say the federal government poses a threat to the rights of Americans.
This survey should be seen in conjunction with others, including a recent CBS News-New York Times poll showing congressional job approval ratings at 15 percent. The disapproval ratings for Congress match the highest level ever recorded, with only 8 percent of respondents saying that most members of Congress deserve re-election. And a Gallup Poll from the latter half of last year shows trust in the federal government was near an all-time low (19 percent).
About these findings I would say several things. The first is that they underscore how badly President Obama misread the public mood when he decided to push for the nationalization of our health care system. Its success was predicated on the belief that a large percentage of the public trusted government to do the right thing. And this, in turn, depended on the belief that the 2008 election marked an ideological hinge moment in America. That was not the case. When Obama took office, trust in government was already low; rather than setting about to incrementally rebuild confidence, Obama made a fateful decision to exploit the economic crisis in order to enlarge the size, scope and reach of the state. Obama and congressional Democrats are paying a fearsome price for this miscalculation. The political analyst Charlie Cook calls this power grab, manifest most especially in ObamaCare, “one of the biggest miscalculations that we've seen in modern political history.”
Second, we are witnessing (for liberals) a bitter irony in the making: Barack Obama, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid are undermining the modern liberal project, which is predicated on an almost limitless faith in the federal government. They are creating the conditions for an epic counterreaction. We see it in every way imaginable, from polls to elections to the organic uprising against ObamaCare specifically and his economic and spending policies more broadly.
Third, the crisis in confidence in government, which has certainly been accelerated by Obama and congressional Democrats, is rooted in events that go beyond them. There is a great deal of skepticism toward many public institutions, as well as toward the Republican Party and Wall Street (the military is one of the few institutions in American life that is rightly immune to what is happening). The mistrust is deep and pervasive. And I will confess that I not only understand the public's current mistrust of government; I share in much of it. Public objections to Obama-ism, in almost all their particulars, are in my view fully justified. At the same time, the levels of mistrust toward government can also be corrosive and harmful to our nation.
“Government,” wrote Edmund Burke, the most important figure in conservatism in the last 350 years, “is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants.” Its role is to contain evil and to promote justice (“Justice is the end of government” is how James Madison, the father of the American Constitution, put it in Federalist No. 51). Laws shape national character. Government, therefore, plays a role in unifying a nation and acting on its behalf.
A healthy, well-functioning society is one in which the government commands the loyalty and trust of its citizens. If that bond is broken, something terribly important has been lost. It is difficult, and it may be very nearly impossible, to sustain a deep love of country if its citizens have nothing but contempt for its government. But contempt is what we often have.
This is where a responsive, and responsible, Republican Party comes in. It can continue to be responsive to the real concerns of the public. And it can be responsible by taking the public's scorn for government and channeling it in a constructive manner, in a way that translates into an actual governing and reform agenda. It is not enough to simply pour kerosene onto the bonfire. Republicans need public figures (like Gov. Mitch Daniels, former Gov. Jeb Bush and Rep. Paul Ryan) who can articulate an alternative view of government in a way that isn't simplistic, that isn't angry, or that doesn't appeal (as I worry Sarah Palin sometimes does) to cultural resentments.
Once again, those arguing for limited government are in the best position to restore trust in government (Reagan achieved this in the aftermath of Carter). Government is the “offspring of our own choice,” President Washington said in his Farewell Address — one that “has a just claim to [our] confidence and [our] support.” One of the arguments Republicans need to forcefully advance in the Age of Obama is that government has a vital but limited role to play; that its laws and institutions matter; that its de-legitimization is dangerous; and that the modern GOP has a specific, credible plan to restore a healthy respect for the state and its institutions.
This would be a deeply conservative undertaking — and an ennobling one as well.
Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. He served in the Bush White House as director of the office of strategic initiatives.