Cultural shifts change attitudes toward role of government

Published Nov 10, 2012 at 04:00AM

The American colonies were first settled by Protestant dissenters. These were people who refused to submit to the established religious authorities. They sought personal relationships with God. They moved to the frontier when life got too confining. They created an American creed, built, as the sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset put it, around liberty, individualism, equal opportunity, populism and laissez-faire.

This creed shaped America and evolved with the decades. Starting in the mid-20th century, there was a Southern and Western version of it, formed by ranching Republicans like Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Their version drew on the traditional tenets: ordinary people are capable of greatness; individuals have the power to shape their destinies; they should be given maximum freedom to do so.

This is not an Ayn Randian, radically individualistic belief system. Republicans in this mold place tremendous importance on churches, charities and families — on the sort of pastoral work Mitt Romney does and the sort of community groups Rep. Paul Ryan celebrated in a speech at Cleveland State University last month.

But this worldview is innately suspicious of government. Its adherents generally believe in the equation that more government equals less individual and civic vitality.

During the 2012 campaign, Republicans kept circling back to the spot where government expansion threatens personal initiative: you didn’t build that; makers versus takers; the supposed dependency of the 47 percent. Again and again, Republicans argued that the vital essence of the country is threatened by overweening government.

These economic values played well in places with a lot of Protestant dissenters and their cultural heirs. They struck chords with people whose imaginations are inspired by the frontier experience.

But, each year, there are more Americans whose cultural roots lie elsewhere. Each year, there are more people from different cultures, with different attitudes toward authority, different attitudes about individualism, different ideas about what makes people enterprising. More important, people in these groups are facing problems not captured by the fundamental Republican equation: more government equals less vitality.

The Pew Research Center does excellent research on Asian-American and Hispanic values. Two findings jump out. First, people in these groups have an awesome commitment to work. By most measures, members of these groups value industriousness more than whites.

Second, they are also tremendously appreciative of government. In survey after survey, they embrace the idea that some government programs can incite hard work, not undermine it; enhance opportunity, not crush it.

Moreover, when they look at the things that undermine the work ethic and threaten their chances to succeed, it’s often not government. It’s a modern economy in which you can work more productively, but your wages still don’t rise. It’s a bloated financial sector that just sent the world into turmoil. It’s a university system that is indispensable but unaffordable. It’s chaotic neighborhoods that can’t be cured by withdrawing government programs.

For these people, the Republican equation is irrelevant. When they hear Romney talk abstractly about Big Government vs. Small Government, they think: He doesn’t get me or people like me.

Let’s just look at one segment, Asian-Americans. Many of these people are leading the lives Republicans celebrate. They are, disproportionately, entrepreneurial, industrious and family-oriented. Yet, on Tuesday, Asian-Americans rejected the Republican Party by three to one. They don’t relate to the Republican equation that more government equals less work.

Overall, Republicans have lost the popular vote in five out of the six post-Cold-War elections because large parts of the country have moved on. The basic Republican framing no longer resonates.

If I were given a few minutes with the Republican billionaires, I’d say: spend less money on marketing and more on product development. Spend less on super PACs and more on research. Find people who can shift the debate away from the abstract frameworks — like Big Government vs. Small Government. Find people who can go out with notebooks and study specific, grounded everyday problems: What exactly does it take these days to rise? What exactly happens to the ambitious kid in Akron at each stage of life in this new economy? What are the best ways to rouse ambition and open fields of opportunity?

Don’t get hung up on whether the federal government is 20 percent or 22 percent of GDP. Be the party that celebrates work and inflames enterprise. Use any tool, public or private, to help people transform their lives.

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