Small Government Is Popular–The GOP Isn’t

Everybody Hates John Boehner

The other day, two seemingly contradictory stories appeared in my inbox almost simultaneously. The first was yet another story on how unpopular the Republican Party is right now, thanks to their doomed, incoherent budget strategy: “NBC/WSJ poll: Shutdown debate damages GOP.”

The short of it is that only 24% of Americans have a positive view of the Republican Party–the lowest rating for either party in the history of the poll–and that Obama and the Democrats’ numbers have actually inched up slightly.

This is despite the fact that Obamacare’s rollout–the premier of the president’s signature achievement, and the cause of the government shutdown–has been universally declared a failure. Serious and pervasive problems with the insurance exchange website run by the federal government have made it almost impossible for anyone to sign up, and many journalists have all but given up looking for people who have successfully managed to sign up for a policy.

Incredibly, Obamacare is actually becoming more popular: 38% think it’s a good idea this month, compared to 31% last month. To put it mildly, the GOP’s strategy has proved… less than successful.

Democrats have essentially refused to negotiate on delaying Obamacare’s mandate, taxes, spending levels, the debt ceiling, and anything else that matters, and the Republicans are paying the price, while helpfully distracting the public from the annoying fiasco of Obamacare–with the annoying fiasco of a government shutdown.

…But Lots of Them Like Smaller Government

The second article from The Washington Post was titled: “The conservative shift in public opinion has happened in all 50 states.” It opens with the not-so-surprising fact that the public has grown increasingly skeptical of government programs in the last few years–the tea party, while (in name, at least) increasingly unpopular, was an outpouring of populist outrage about spending, debt, and big government unlike anything this country has seen.

ennsWhen it’s not being hijacked by the religious right to attack gay marriage, abortion rights, and secular government, the tea party movement has been quite successful by focusing on fiscal and economic issues.

When it helped propel the Republican takeover of the House in 2010, its class of freshman congressmen also effected what amounted to a palace coup within the caucus, putting the old guard onto the defensive on a host of supposedly settled questions about spending and entitlements.

But what might surprise you is that this phenomenon is part of a long-term shift in public opinion, spanning decades, towards more fiscal conservatism and less government–and it’s happening in all fifty states.

Using James Stimson’s measure of public support for government programs, Cornell’s Julianna Koch and Peter Enns compared the public’s attitude towards government programs from the middle of last century through the 2000s. They found a substantial increase in opposition to progressive policies, in every state and in every region of the country.

This fact may help explain otherwise bizarre stories in recent years, like the home of public sector unions re-electing a Republican governor on an agenda of rolling back lucrative union benefits, or New Jersey (of all places) electing a Republican, specifically on a platform of opposing the state’s powerful teachers unions.

…And They Don’t Care About Your Sexuality

The article also noted, with puzzlement, that while the country is becoming more fiscally conservative, it has also become more socially tolerant. As I noted earlier this year, support for marriage equality is at an all time high, majorities support legalizing pot and creating a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers, and even secularism is on the rise.

On every front of the “culture wars,” social conservatism is being routed. Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels saw the handwriting on the wall more than two years when he called for a truce with libertarians. But with respect to Governor Daniels, I think it’s time for conservatives to wake up and face a more serious reality: they don’t need a “truce” on social issues–they need to surrender.

Meanwhile, the public has become increasingly opposed to expanding the war overseas, as seen by the rout of the president’s charge to war in Syria, and more skeptical of the all-seeing, all-powerful national security state, as seen by both sides’ rank and file bucking their own party leadership on issues like NSA’s mass surveillance powers.

All of this points to one very obvious conclusion: the public has become increasingly skeptical of government, and increasingly tolerant of different personal choices. They are, in a word, becoming more libertarian. We may well be living in thelibertarian moment”–or even heading towards a “libertarian era.”

But this also suggests another truth that needs confronting: the main impediment to turning small government attitudes into actually smaller government is the Republican establishment itself. The sooner conservatives wake up to this fact, the better off we’ll all be.