America's Big Government Debate Is Forever

David Brooks has a very David Brooksian column today that uses the oil plume as a news peg-cum-synecdoche for the public's conflicted attitudes toward the role of government. These are interesting paragraphs:

As a matter of conviction, the country is deeply uncomfortable with [bigger government]. Operationally, on the other hand, the country has become accustomed to the new programs and to the new presidential role...

They want to hold [Obama] responsible for things [like the oil spill] they know he doesn't control. Their reaction is a mixture of disgust, anger, longing and need. It may not make sense. But it doesn't make sense that the country wants spending cuts and doesn't want cuts, wants change and doesn't want change.

At some point somebody's going to have to reach a national consensus on the role of government.

The distinction between the public's emotional (or notional) discomfort with larger government and its operational need for the services a larger government provides is nicely put.

Still, I wonder what Brooks means by "somebody's going to have to reach a national consensus on the role of government." Have we ever had a national consensus on the role of government, ever? The history of American politics and political theory is essentially a perpetual war over the proper size and role the federal government, even as it has rather steadily expanded.

From the fight over the Bill of Rights, to the intellectual legacies of Hamilton and Jefferson, to the Civil War's bloody argument over states' rights, through to the New Deal, Great Society, Reagan tax cuts and Obama administration, the only consensus I detect is the silent, mutual acknowledgment that Americans will never reach a national consensus on the role of government. Today, the distance between Americans' expectations for Small Government-tax rates and their operational need for Big Government-services can be read on the placards of Tea Party protesters, gauged by listening to Washington rhetoric, and enumerated by measuring our structural deficit. Like the oil plume, it is a national phenomenon that is partly visible, partly lurking and constantly rising to the surface.