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Posted by: Doug Henwood | April 20, 2009

The threat of bigness

You hear a lot of people claiming that a major transformation in the American ideological landscape is underway. Gallup has just published new data suggesting that the shifts are modest, and this country remains pretty conservative.

Specifically, over half—55%—of Americans view big government as the gravest threat to the USA, compared with 32% seeing big business as the ogre. Big labor comes in dead last, at 10%.

Here’s the historical view:

Note that at the peak of the Clinton boom, fear of government had a 40-point lead; that’s since narrowed to a mere 23 points. But also note that even back in the often idealized 1960s, government was still the most feared, followed by labor—with business bringing up the rear.

Yes, the question is abstract, and yes, no doubt more specific questions would reveal more complex attitudes. But abstract questions like this also reveal the foundational fantasies of the political unconscious. Gallup is amazed that the stimulus package and bailout haven’t increased Americans’ fear of big government. Me, I’m amazed that the economic wreck hasn’t increased Americans’ fear of big biz.

Re: an earlier post. Nationalize the banks? Ha, in what time, and in what country?

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Responses

  1. Given our still unshaken media and propaganda/wealth arrangements, how could it be otherwise? Depressing, nonetheless, as were the recent findings on the crap people still believe about class mobility.

  2. Doug
    Very interesting piece. I think it would be a very eye opening study of what American’s “perveive they need the most”, given the conditions of today. Given the choices, I think the gap will close even further.

  3. Antipathy for “big government” grew regularly for over twenty years. until “big government/big tax-man” was driven down by the Cheney administration, whereapon some realized that beating back big government did less than nothing good for them.

    Is there some framing going on in the constitution of the poll? Does anyone fear “big religion” or “big loan-sharks” and such? Do all, or even most, consider banks, credit unions, pension funds, Western Union (and check cashing facilities) “big business”? Does anyone fear “other people with guns” ? Does anyone fear gangs?

  4. Anecdotal evidence among elite opinion:

    (then) Bill Clinton: era of big govenment over

    (now) Obama: it’s not if it’s too big or small’s it’s if it works

    Alan Greenspan: “i was wrong” Ya think???

  5. I suspect the trend from 1970 to 2000 is different from the one from 2002 to 2006. The first trend is IMHO the blacklash to the successes of the idealised 60s. Giant leaps were made in civil rights and similar issues and a backlash was inevitable (especially when you add in the hatred of “hippies” shared by the right and what passes for the left). The ratcheting up of anti-government rhetoric and the demonization of the 60s, funded by the Scaifes and Olins, is reflected in the curve.

    With 2001, big government was probably perceived as a comforting power that chased after the bad people that hate us for our freedoms.

    The uptick 2002 on and the downward trend from 2006 when Democrats won control of both houses, may be the first instance (in the time period in this graph) when the public rejected “their” form of big government (Bush/Cheney illegal wars, wiretaps, so on) in favour of the Democratic/progressive version.

    All idle speculation, of course.


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