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One Nation, After All?

The vote is in. Health insurance rules and options will now offer Americans some greater protection. But in recent weeks opponents’ charges have gotten so wild — “Idolatrous Statism!” “Totalitarianism!” — and hate-filled acts so egregious — the spitting of racial slurs at black Congressmen — many wonder how a nation so bitterly split can move forward.

It is hard to imagine any democracy working in which so many citizens seem to hate government, a cavernous divide separates public opinion, and a fringe even calls for secession.

In a recent CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey 56 percent agreed that the federal government’s become so large and powerful that it “poses an immediate threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens.” Among Independents and Republicans, between six and seven out of ten hold this view.

Some see anti-government sentiment simply as the American way. “We love our country, but we’ve never liked government,” Thomas Cronin wrote recently in the New York Times.

Not true.

Over the years, Americans’ feelings about government have varied greatly. During the New Deal and again during the Kennedy years and much of the Great Society era, many Americans had strong positive feelings about government. A lot of us jumped at the chance to join in government-sponsored civic efforts — the Peace Corps abroad, for example, and anti-poverty initiatives at home.

To the question of whether one trusts the federal government to do the right thing all or most of the time, three out of four responded positively in 1964. By 2003, only slightly more than half of us felt that way.

Much depends on how questions are framed. According to a 2004 Pew Research Center poll, for example, 69 percent of Americans held a favorable view of the federal government. There was also wide agreement on its responsibilities: Defense comes first but also among the top seven responsibilities — with two-thirds or more agreeing — were these: regulating big corporations, guaranteeing good public education, protecting the environment, and ensuring equal opportunity. Guaranteeing health care for all garnered 60 percent support.

So, while our government may have a credibility problem today — as it should, with corporate influence ever-more evident — it’s critical to get one thing clear: The vast majority of us aren’t congenitally anti-government.

Partisan political nastiness and deadlock are the media’s most common explanations as to why Americans’ opinion of government seems to be sinking. But this diagnosis begs vastly more questions than it answers. We’re not encouraged to ask, Why? Why, suddenly, did our political leaders become less civil? Did their mothers stop teaching them manners? Probably not.

What is a more likely explanation?

The fall off in public goodwill toward government might be tied to the decision by some to redefine the democratic process itself. Growing up, I learned that democracy meant the coming together of different perspectives to deliberate over what’s best for all, and then compromising until a path is chosen.

But in the 1980s, another school of thought took hold.

The goal of politicians, in this view, is not to win a public debate or “make a deal” to achieve a legislative solution; it is to destroy the other side. “Politics is war conducted by other means. In political warfare you do not fight just to prevail in an argument, but to destroy the enemy’s fighting ability. . . .In political wars, the aggressor usually prevails,” wrote David Horowitz in “The Art of Political War,” a pamphlet distributed by Republican congressman Tom DeLay to Republican colleagues in 2000. (Later, Horowitz produced a book by that title.)

Plus, many Republicans apparently discovered that making government itself the “problem” (a la Reagan’s famous quip), rather than any particular policy, was a great strategy for winning elections.

And if that’s your platform, why not prove it? Make government fail. Drive it into deficit, cut back powers and personnel necessary to enforce standards, and block legislation so nothing happens. Claim that almost any government action is socialist or communist — and will destroy America.

Then decry government ineptitude.

The consequence of the approach is bitter political division. Reinforce that with a devoutly partisan Fox News and the spread of AM hate radio (with most of the rest of the media failing to call out its lies and distortions), and it is easy to assume that we, the American people, are incorrigibly divided, too.

But when we look beyond the shrill, wild claims, we find, for example, that 86 percent of us agree that corporations already have too much power in Washington and 80 percent disapproves of the January Supreme Court ruling giving corporations even greater political influence.

On solutions, too, we are strongly united:

While our politicians could not agree on health insurance reform, according to a recent Newsweek poll, among the American people “73 percent want government to require businesses to offer insurance, almost 80 percent favor requiring insurance companies to cover everyone, regardless of their health, and 81 percent like the idea of insurance exchanges.” Interestingly, when opponents of the president’s plan were told that all of these provisions are in it, few were moved.

Isn’t this a sign that partisan media so fogs our lenses that we can’t see unity where it exists?

Almost two thirds of Americans believe “the gap between rich and poor should be reduced, even if it means higher taxes for the wealthy.” Two thirds agree that “America must play a leading role in addressing climate change...complying with international agreements on global warming,” according to 2009 surveys.

The most significant common ground, lost in the view that we’re hopelessly divided, is

this: Progressives and conservatives alike see concentrated, unaccountable power as dangerous. Progressives focus their fear on corporate power, while conservatives worry more about government power. Yet, in many respects, these two are joined at the hip — two faces of one underlying problem, privately held government. Imagine if Americans really began talking to each other and joined to challenge both.

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