Americans: Republicans in General, Democrats in Particular

The U.S. is ideologically conservative, but ask voters about specific issues and they find it harder to discern the "correct" position.
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Gary Cameron/Reuters

When Americans think about government in the big picture, they can seem like a nation of Ayn Rands. People want to lay waste to the Leviathan. But when Americans consider specific aspects of government, a curious thing happens. People rediscover their love of Washington. On issue after issue, Republicans are winning the argument in general, whereas Democrats are winning the argument in particular.

Consider gun control. On the overall issue of regulating guns, Republicans seem to have a strong hand. Over the last 20 years, Gallup found a steady decline in the number of Americans favoring “more strict” gun control, from 78 percent in 1990, to 62 percent in 1995, 51 percent in 2007, and 44 percent in 2010—before a slight uptick to 49 percent today.

Americans are wary of gun control in general, but they’re supportive of particular regulations. In 2013, for example, the Pew Research Center asked people about four specific gun policies and found strong backing for tightening the rules. A little more than half of respondents favored a ban on assault-style weapons. More than two-thirds of the public supported a federal-government database to track gun sales. And 81 percent endorsed background checks for private gun sales and gun shows. The only gun policy that people didn’t like was the idea of loosening control so that more teachers carried guns in school—an idea that garnered 34 percent support.

A second example is Obamacare. When Americans are asked for their general take on the Affordable Care Act, it’s grim reading for the White House. In early 2014, for example, Gallup found 41 percent approval and 51 percent disapproval.

But Americans are far more enthusiastic about particular parts of the law. The Kaiser Family Foundation asked people about 11 key provisions of Obamacare, such as creating health-insurance exchanges, banning insurance companies from denying coverage to those with pre-existing conditions, and the individual mandate. They found strong or overwhelming support for 10 out of 11 provisions. The only idea that people didn’t like was the individual mandate. With Obamacare, the whole is evidently worse than the sum of its parts.

And here’s a third example: the federal government. When Americans think of Washington, D.C., as a single entity, they often respond with fear and loathing. Ask people whether they want to cut government spending across the board and three quarters say yes. But ask people whether they want to cut specific programs and support immediately evaporates.

Similarly, public approval for Congress as an overall institution hovers in the 10 to 20 percent range. Many would agree with Mark Twain: “There is no native criminal class except Congress.” Americans, however, are far more generous about their own particular member of Congress—and keep reelecting them.

If Americans see government through a wide-angle lens, they favor the conservative viewpoint. But if they see government close up, people move to the left. When Americans look at the woods, they’re Republican. When they look at the trees, they’re Democrats.

Why is this? It ultimately comes down to the difference between the nation’s ideology and the reality of how people actually live their lives. The United States is a very ideological country with a profound commitment to the founding creed of individual rights and limited government. Americans endlessly debate how to advance this creed but virtually no one questions the core values themselves. Part of being American is to distrust government.

Ask Americans about gun control or Washington in abstract terms, and you’ll hear kneejerk skepticism. People reach for the ideologically correct answer: Big government is bad.  But the more you burrow into the weeds of specific programs, the less reflexively anti-government Americans become. Should insurance companies be able to discriminate based on pre-existing conditions? Suddenly, it’s not clear what the ideologically correct answer is, so Americans fall back on common sense—and often favor reasonable regulation. They start sounding less like Ayn Rand, and more like Canadians.

If Americans are Republican in general and Democrat in particular, the two parties might employ very different strategies. The GOP should campaign in poetry, keeping the pitch general and abstract. Democrats should campaign in prose, by focusing on specific government programs and people’s lived reality.

But wait a sec, didn’t Obama offer a visionary campaign in 2008, and win the election handily? Sure, but he wasn’t waxing poetically about a new era of government activism. Hope and change meant electing the first black president: a uniting and transformational figure who could move the country beyond the age of Bush.

And in 2012, when Obama talked about the role of government, he wisely kept it specific, by trumpeting the auto bailout and the response to Hurricane Sandy. Meanwhile, his opponent, Mitt Romney, never managed to launch an effective Reagan-style broadside against government.

Republicans need to persuade the public that government doesn’t just look bad from a distance—it’s awful up close as well. Meanwhile, Democrats have convinced Americans that government works in practice. Now they need to show that it works in theory.

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Dominic Tierney is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and an associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College. He is the author of How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War.

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