Paste It On Your Front Lobes: When It Comes to Government We Americans Are Ideologically Conservative, But Operationally Liberal

How else can I make sense of what’s been happening over the last few months? In his reply to Obama’s State of the Union Address in January of this year, Bobby Jindal, governor of Louisiana said that he opposed big government-run programs such as health care.  He believed that power should not be placed in the hands of the government and that limited government and personal responsibility is the way to go.  Now he complains loudly about lack of Federal Government help and demands the government take charge of the oil spill resolution, and provide even more help for the BP disaster in the Gulf and along the Louisiana coastline.Then there are the Tea Partiers.  Asked what they’re angry about, they say big government, the health care bill and the economy.  But these older white males don’t want government touching their Medicare or their Social Security.Furthermore, there’s a great hue and cry from the financial business about government setting monetary policy.  Why, the argument goes, should government get involved when we’ve got all these smart financial types (like Goldman Sachs)?  However, a thorough analysis of government involvement might just point out a great deal of inconsistency in the thinking.  Take monetary policy as an example.  The snag with banishing government completely from the financial sector is the FDIC.  At least 240 banks have gone belly up since the financial crash, yet most depositors didn’t lose a dime.  That’s because FDIC covers the savings of the bank’s customers.  Without it, many Americans would have been ruined.Or take energy policy.  Washington should take a hands-off policy from the strategy, get its nose out of telling the oil and gas companies where it’s safe to drill.  After all, oil can police itself because it has the very best expertise and technology – – – OK.  Bad example.Also, most of us would prefer that the US Department of Agriculture regularly take a peek at the chicken and beef that are sold in our grocery stores.  And then when the produce gets tainted, who do you want to find out where the salmonella is coming from and force the growers to change their ways?  It’s those NIH scientists–often from Minnesota (some states lack the insight to do more than check with those ex-Minnesotans.  In other words, I wouldn’t want to be living in Mississippi in an outbreak of e-coli or salmonella.)  As Carl Hiaasen of the Miami Herald writes, Big Guv’ment’s gotta go, ‘cept for parts I likes.  But when you read his column we’ll all find a lotta parts we like in addition to the FDIC, FDA and USDA.  Add, of course, the Coast Guard which rescues people, and is scrambling over the oil spill.  And who wants to chop up the national security agencies:  FBI, CIA,NSA, TSA, etc.  Of course, when the hurrican season comes, we want to make certain that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is around to tell us to run for cover.  All worthless, big government!??!  As for the rest of the Big Guv’ment, get your shiftless boot off our hard-working necks, and let us be–at least until we’re old enough for Social Security.  Then we’ll tell you where to send the checks. More than 40 years ago,Free and Cantril studied this issue and found that Americans tend to be ideologically (symbolically) conservative and operationally liberal.  In a recent study, James Stimson and Christopher Ellis (Pathways to Ideology in American Politics) revisited the issue, finding that self-identification as “conservative” has a number of meanings.  But the types of political appeals that those self-identified as conservative can be quite different.  Stimson and Ellis found that those that espouse the language of conservative religious belief transfer that language to their political beliefs. In other words, “I’m a religious conservative, so I should be a political conservative.”  It’s obviously a very situational notion, because religious conservatives in England usually think of themselves as politically liberal, even socialist.Of course if you want to check out yourself or a colleagues, find out whether they see FDA, NIH, CIA, Medicare or Social Security as necessary organizations.  Having done that, I’ve observed some stumbling around in the conversation.  You’ll find that people who hold concepts about ideology and the operations of government to be quite inconsistent.  Of course, if it’s at all true that consistency is the hobgoblin (a fairy who’s a source of trouble) of little minds, then. . . well you finish the subject.  There’s also a terrific lack of awareness of the contributions of government to human life.  That’s an understatement.  An astonishing lack of awareness is more like it.  But then too, I had civics in high school and am a history major so I bring a little background to the subject.  Well, don’t be surprised when you see and recognize the gross inconsistencies and contradictions around ideology and practice.  They’re perfectly normal.But sometime after hell freezes over, it might be possible to recognize that what we’re going to be dealing with in our country can’t be resolved by talking either high taxes or low taxes, big government or little government.  We’re going to have to reframe the tough issues we face over the next 20 years.  But like oil spills, we usually think about those things after the tragedy takes place.  I hope that’s not true.  
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