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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