While running for President in 1980, Ronald Reagan famously quipped, “I’ve always felt the nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’”
As funny — and as effective — as these lines were in 1980, they have come to define the profound divide the exists in American politics today. Lots of people — call them conservatives, or tea partiers, or even skeptical pragmatists — think Reagan got it absolutely right. It isn’t hard, after all, to come up with a long list of government abuses and failures ranging from Iraq to Solyndra to No Child Left Behind to pepper-spraying students at the University of California-Davis … and many, many more.
For such people, the prospect of Obamacare is a sincere nightmare: now, the same people who brought you the debacle in Vietnam and the poverty barns of mega-housing projects like Chicago’s (now destroyed) Cabrini Green, want to “help you stay healthy” — and all for just a few dollars, too.
Others — call them liberals, or progressives, or hopeful pragmatists — find Reagan’s comments absurd. After all, it’s not like other institutions of social and political life have covered themselves in glory when it comes to matters of human freedom: corporations regularly cheat, steal and lie, often with deadly effects for the people who use their products; likewise, many private businesses reflected and reinforced the racial, gender, sexual orientation and other biases of their times. Such bias was buttressed by state governments that were particularly vicious towards the civil rights of many of their (minority) residents.
Those people who see the failures of the private sector and/or state governments to defend or expand freedom and liberty look to the federal government to do what no other agency of social and political life can: counter the power of the corporate, local and state-level actors who promote and practice discrimination, exclusion and the manipulation of power against the dignity of the individual.
Which story one tells defines one’s politics. Obamacare, economic stimulus, regulation of Wall Street, whatever: do you think the federal government helps or hurts? The answer to that question matters.
Welcome to the divide that cleaves contemporary American politics.