‘Even Critics of Safety Net Increasingly Depend on It,” read the front-page headline in the February 12 issue of the New York Times. Reporting from Chisago County, north of Minneapolis, the paper’s Binyamin Appelbaum and Robert Gebeloff found several residents who, although they describe themselves as “self-sufficient members of the American middle class” and “opponents of government largesse,” are “drawing more deeply on that government with each passing year.” One says, “I don’t feel like I need the government,” even though he supplements his $39,000 income with Earned Income Tax Credit refunds, his three younger children receive federal subsidies for their school breakfasts and lunches, and Medicare recently paid for his mother’s hip surgeries.
Appelbaum and Gebeloff interviewed several other people who “continue to take as much help from the government as they can get,” despite being skeptical about government programs. “When pressed to choose between paying more and taking less, many people interviewed here hemmed and hawed and said they could not decide. Some were reduced to tears.”
The Times did not randomly select Chisago County for examination. Home to Representative Chip Cravaack, it provided his margin of victory in November 2010 when he became the first Republican congressman since 1947 from Minnesota’s Eighth district. Cravaack, a former airline pilot who had never run for public office before successfully challenging an 18-term Democratic incumbent, was impelled to politics by the tea-party reaction to the Obama domestic agenda. “We have to break away from relying on government to provide all the answers,” the Times quotes Cravaack telling his supporters. Many people in Chisago County, according to Appelbaum and Gebeloff, “say they are angry because the government is wasting money and giving money to people who do not deserve it. But more than that, they say they want to reduce the role of government in their own lives.”
The real subject of the story, then, is the sincerity, feasibility, and even coherence of conservatism’s renewed commitment to limited government. On balance, the article refrained from overtly disdaining its subjects or their political views. Liberal commentators, however, were only too happy to connect the dots. In a column headlined “Moochers Against Welfare,” Paul Krugman derided politicians who “deliberately encourage” voters to believe that slashing government spending means “cutting programs for the idle poor, not things they themselves count on.” Conservatives “hate . . . reliance on government programs,” he wrote, but “the regions in which government programs account for the largest share of personal income” are the ones where conservative candidates fare best at the ballot box. In “Ideological Hypocrites,” which appeared a few days later in the Washington Post, E. J. Dionne asked, “Can conservatives finally face the fact that they actually want quite a lot from government, and that they are simply unwilling to raise taxes to pay for it?”
The indictment is clear: Lots of Americans are conflicted and confused about our welfare state. That’s forgivable — its programs are numerous, enormous, and complex. What’s unforgivable is how conservative politicians, rather than disabuse people of these misconceptions, exploit them to win electoral victories. They do this, in some cases, because they share their constituents’ contradictory thinking about reducing programs while retaining protections. In other cases, they know full well that such an agenda is impossible, but cynically seek short-term political victories at the cost of long-term governmental problems.
Anecdotes about citizens’ demanding that government “keep its hands off Medicare” are Exhibit A in the prosecution’s case. In July 2009, for example, President Obama informed an audience that he had received a letter from a woman who wrote, “I don’t want government-run health care, I don’t want socialized medicine, and don’t touch my Medicare.” Such demands, wrote Timothy Noah at Slate, reflect a politics of “infantile denial.” It finds conservatives, far more frequently than liberals, inciting people to nurse imaginary grievances and make “flagrantly incompatible demands,” he continued, quoting Michael Kinsley. Expressing himself less stridently than Noah, as most people do, the president ascribed his correspondent’s confusion about Medicare to the problem that “sometimes we can’t sort out the myth from the reality.”