Tim Noah thinks he has our number:
The central con of the political coalition assembled by Ronald Reagan and maintained by his successors was that government was a common enemy. Middle-class social conservatives loathed the government for legalizing abortion, forbidding prayer in schools, and coddling minorities through welfare and affirmative action. Upper-class libertarian conservatives loathed the government for soaking the rich through the income tax and weakening businesses through burdensome regulation. The only useful function of the federal government was to provide for the common defense. This was a con for two reasons. First, the middle and upper classes were both dependent on the federal government for a variety of benefits, including Social Security, trade protection, scientific research, and assorted localized spending (termed "pork barrel" by those who don't receive it and "economic development" by those who do). Second, the distribution of this government largesse greatly favored the rich. In the April 1992 Atlantic, Neil Howe and Philip Longman, citing unpublished data from the Congressional Budget Office, reported that U.S. households with incomes above $100,000 received, on average, slightly more in federal cash and in-kind benefits ($5,690) than households with incomes below $10,000 ($5,560). This was four years before the Clinton administration eliminated Aid to Families With Dependent Children, the principal income-support program for the poor. When tax breaks were added to the tally, households with incomes above $100,000 received considerably more ($9,280) than households with incomes below $10,000 ($5,690). Clinton subsequently expanded tax subsidies to the poor through the Earned Income Tax Credit, but not enough to undo this disparity. "[I]f the federal government wanted to flatten the nation's income distribution," Howe and Longman concluded, "it would do better to mail all its checks to random addresses."
The Reagan coalition survived because nobody wanted to believe this ...
The caricature of the conservative coalition that takes up the beginning of this passage is a novel variation on Thomas Frank's vision of unlettered rubes being tricked by a sinister GOP into voting against their economic self-interest. Here, instead, we have a vision of middle and upper-middle-class Americans being tricked by a sinister GOP ... well, how, exactly? It doesn't seem like a contradiction in terms for a middle-class voter to believe that the government of the 1970s imposed too many regulations and too high a tax burden, inappropriately closed off democratic debate on issues like abortion and school prayer, and imposed an unjust racial quota system and ran an increasingly dysfunctional welfare system, while simultaneously supporting the federal government's role in Social Security, the National Academy of Sciences, and the interstate highway system. In fact, that's probably why Ronald Reagan usually couched his criticisms of government in relatively nuanced terms, rather than sounding like the sort of absurd anti-government absolutist that Noah apparently remembers him as. (When Reagan called, in his first inaugural address, for a government that "can and must provide opportunity, not smother it; foster productivity, not stifle it," and so forth, who, exactly, was he conning?)
Then consider that Howe and Longman piece from 1992 on our pro-rich welfare state, which Noah apparently believes (I say "apparently" because I can't completely follow the argument he thinks he's making here) to be conclusive evidence that conservatives claim to want limited government, but really support a big government that subsidizes the middle class and the rich.
Like most things in the Atlantic archives, it's worth a read: The two authors cite a series of examples for their claim that America's welfare state is dramatically biased toward the rich. Here's the first one:
... by 1991 the federal government's largest housing subsidy program was providing an average of $3,000 a year to each of the six million wealthiest households in America, while offering nothing to the 36 million Americans in poverty. To qualify for this particular benefit, called the home-mortgage deduction, you had to borrow using your first or second home as collateral. And the more you borrowed, even if it was to finance a chalet in Aspen- or just a ski trip to Aspen--the more subsidy you would receive from other taxpayers. By 1991 the cost of the home-mortgage deduction had risen to $37 billion, of which 81 percent went directly to households with incomes over $50,000.
Wow, that sounds like bad policy! If only one of the two political parties had proposed capping the home-mortgage deduction, so that it could serve its original purpose as an engine of working and middle-class advancement rather than subsidizing the upper crust's mansions and vacation homes. Ah, but wait ... isn't that exactly what the Bush Administration's panel on tax reform proposed three years ago? Why, Slate even wrote about it, in a piece by Daniel Gross that was subtitled "The Bush tax panel's plan to screw Democrats" - because it turns out, wonder of wonders, that the biggest beneficiaries of this crazy, upper-middle-class friendly policy tend to be well-off, Democratic-leaning voters in blue states. (Though yes, I'm some of those awful "upper-class libertarian conservatives" Noah has in mind benefit as well.)
Here's another outrage Howe and Longman wrote about back in 1992:
... Among households that were covered by employer-paid health-care plans, the average benefit for those in the highest income brackets was many times larger than the average for those in the lowest income brackets. Moreover, most economists agree that such large subsidies encourage their beneficiaries to overconsume health-care services, and thus put even more inflationary pressure on a system already in crisis. Who will argue with an employer who offers a Gold Plan" package that provides generous coverage for every medical contingency, from orthodontia to nose jobs to psychoanalysis, as long as it's tax-free?
it sure would be nice if someone would propose, say, capping the tax
deduction for health care, so that upper-income Americans don't enjoy
quite so big a built-in subsidy. But wait - again, somebody did propose
just that: Ronald Reagan proposed a cap in the Eighties, I believe, and
George W. Bush did so again in the Oughts. I can't seem to remember how
Noah's Democrats responded to these proposals, but I'm sure they
treated them very favorably. After all, they're the party of the common
Speaking of health care, here's another outrage from Howe and Longman's list:
Stranger yet was what happened to these uninsured Americans, and to everyone else, if they happened to live to be sixty-five. After that birthday a citizen, regardless of income, became entitled to take part in a program called Medicare, which would pay for everything from CAT scans to pacemakers, from chiropractic to orthopedic recliners. In 1991 Medicare spent nearly $19 billion subsidizing the health care of households earning $50,000 or more. That year government experts projected that the mounting cost of Medicare would cause the program to collapse within fifteen years, and that if current trends continued, total health-care spending would rise to an economy-shattering 44 percent of the gross national product by 2030. No one listened.
That sounds bad. I can't remember, though - which party tends to be in favor of means-testing Medicare, and which party includes a lot of people who think the solution to America's health care woes is "Medicare for all"?
And then, of course, there's Social Security:
Finally, there was the program originally designed to offer all Americans what President Franklin Roosevelt's brain trusters called "a floor of protection" against destitution in old age. But over the course of more than half a century Social Security had evolved into something radically different. By 1991 the system was distributing more than 555 billion a year, or more than a fifth of its benefits, to households with incomes above $50,000 a year. For that much money the government could have provided every American with cradle-to-grave insurance against poverty -including the one American child in twenty who lived in a household reporting a cash income during 1991 of less than $5,000.
all remember, no doubt, how eagerly Noah's Democrats responded to
President Bush's proposals for means-testing Social Security, don't
you? Don't you? (Hey, Mickey Kaus was on board ...)
I'm exaggerating here for effect, obviously: There are plenty of
respects in which liberal proposals would make our welfare state more
progressive, and plenty of respects in which conservative proposals
would make it less so. (And sure enough - if you push ahead to the end
of the Howe and Longman piece, you'll find that some of their
recommendations would probably be embraced by the right, and others by
the left.) And I'm sidestepping the issue of market mechanisms and
their role in government programs, which is obviously of the biggest
chasms separating the two parties on issues like health care and Social
Security - conservatives don't just want to reduce government subsidies
for the rich on those fronts, they want to inject more market
mechanisms into the programs as well, which liberals fear would
adversely effect the poor and vulnerable, etc.
But the baseline is this: We don't have one political party (the Republicans) that wants to pretend government is the enemy while using it to subsidize the rich, and one political party (the Democrats) that wants the government to redistribute the nation's wealth to the poor and working classes. We have one party that wants low taxes and a limited welfare state whose benefits are heavily means-tested, and one party that wants high taxes, especially on the affluent, to subsidize a big welfare state in which benefits aren't really means-tested at all. In practice, because the rich and the upper-middle class are so politically influential, we tend to end up with the most upper-income-friendly aspects of both agendas - that is, low taxes paying for a welfare state whose benefits aren't means-tested - while both parties' proposals to make the system more progressive, whether by cutting spending or increasing it, wither on the vine. But if there's a "con" here, it's a bipartisan one, and it doesn't bear much resemblance to the (frankly confused) vision of Reaganite dishonesty that animates Noah's piece.