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When government ceases to be an abstraction

REUTERS/Mike Segar
It’s not just veterans and memorials that Americans want to protect. A majority of Americans oppose cuts in any of the 19 major areas Pew asked about, and they most certainly don’t want to shut down those services altogether.

“Oh wait, don’t shutdown the monuments for millions of visitors. That’s mean-spirited political theater. Oh wait, don’t shutdown veterans benefits. That’s un-American. Oh wait, don’t stop protecting us against infectious diseases, food-borne illnesses and environmental catastrophes. That endangers public health. Oh wait, don’t delay passport and visa applications, bankruptcy court cases, small business loans and mortgage applications. That hurts our economy. Oh wait, don’t furlough workers in my home state who buy stuff from my home state businesses. That hurts Main Street. We only shut down a nameless, faceless abstract stereotype called ‘big government,’ not that stuff.”

This is the noise coming from the congressional Republicans who were reportedly “giddy” when they first shutdown the government, and now are blaming President Obama when confronted with the effects of an overwhelmingly unpopular shutdown.

Anatomy of the GOP miscalculation

How did Republicans make such a massive miscalculation? In large part, they misread public opinion polls that consistently say the American people want “less government spending.” This emboldened them.

But what they apparently didn’t read were the public opinion polls that broke government down to its component services. That research makes it clear that a majority of Americans absolutely do not want to cut government services.

According to one Pew Resarch poll, only 32% of Americans want to cut unemployment benefits, 24% want to cut aid to the poor, 22% want to cut environmental protection, 20% want to cut government research, 17% want to cut roads and infrastructure, 14% want to cut combatting crime, and 10% want to cut education. The truth is, the fans of cutting government are a fringe minority of Americans.

It’s not just veterans and memorials that Americans want to protect. A majority of Americans oppose cuts in any of the 19 major areas Pew asked about, and they most certainly don’t want to shut down those services altogether.

Obamacare: abstract v. specifics

The same is true of the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare.” As an abstraction, Obamacare faces some opposition, though less than most believe. Only one in five (20%) Americans want to repeal it in its entirety, while a majority of Americans either want to keep it or strengthen it.

While there are concerns about Obamacare as an abstraction, a Reuters poll shows that the component parts of it are overwhelmingly popular.

  • Allowing 6.6 million young adults to be covered on their parents’ policies until age 26? 61 percent of American support it.
  • Requiring companies with more than 50 workers to provide health insurance for employees? 72 percent of Americans support it.
  • Banning insurance companies from denying coverage to people with pre-existing health problems? 82 percent of Americans support it, including 78% of Republicans.

If you think a government shutdown is unpopular, just try to shutdown Obamacare in 2014 or 2015. As soon as Americans understand that repealing Obamacare would re-empower insurance corporations to deny coverage to their sick family members, friends, neighbors and co-workers, you would have 82 percent of Americans, and 78% of Republicans, up in arms.

Government in the abstract is quite unpopular, while government in the specific is quite popular. If any good could come of this fiasco, it would be the Republicans learning this fundamental lesson about the American people they represent.

This post was written by Joe Loveland and originally published on Wry Wing Politics.

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by John Reinan on 10/10/2013 - 04:42 pm.

    This is like generic vs. specific politician

    You’re no doubt familiar with the dynamic in which some large majority of Americans rates Congress unfavorably, yet they like their own representative. This strikes me as the same kind of thing — it’s easy to hate something in the abstract, less so when you know more about it.

  2. Submitted by Steve Rose on 10/10/2013 - 06:07 pm.

    An interesting account of the games being played

    “One angry Park Service ranger in Washington told the Washington Times, “We’ve been told to make life as difficult for people as we can. It’s disgusting.””

    “In addition to the controversy with Helseth [Battle of Yorktown], the National Park Service has been involved in several other incidents that have outraged Americans. For instance, the Obama administration has closed public areas that stayed open in past shutdowns.”

    P.S.: Your “reportedly giddy” link is broken.

  3. Submitted by jody rooney on 10/11/2013 - 02:05 am.

    Did you have a point Mr. Rose ?

    I don’t see one.

    The administration was very selective in what it shut down. It could have stopped operating the locks on the river. Tough luck for Minnesota grain farms and anyone else who depends on the river for transportation.

    The park ranger may have been disgusted but that as near as I can tell one person out of 2.1 million could only be a Republican majority

    But to be fair what specific service would you like shut down. Of course we could start by reducing subsidies like mortgage deductions, personal exemptions, in fact all deductions in income tax statements those are the things that subsidize the middle and upper classes (of course there is that pesky capital gains rate)

    The Republicans used Obama care as a pejorative for the Affordable Care Act (If I want to keep it civil I won’t mention what I think of news media that went along with that term.). Now the President has co-opted the term.

    Exactly how many laws should Congressman be allowed to revisit right before implementation. After 44 votes even someone as thick as our 6th district rep should have figured it, No that’s not true I am clearly giving her too much credit.

    • Submitted by Steve Rose on 10/11/2013 - 08:05 am.

      Was I too subtle? I will try to be less nuanced.

      Read the first two sentences of the column, which for your convenience I will repeat here, “Oh wait, don’t shutdown the monuments for millions of visitors. That’s mean-spirited political theater. At the top of paragraph two, the author continues, “This is the noise coming from the congressional Republicans who were reportedly “giddy” when they first shutdown the government.” [Note: “giddy” link result: “This is somewhat embarrassing, isn’t it?”]

      You seem to agree with the author, “The administration was very selective in what it shut down.” Not true, as there are ample examples where unmanned, open air monuments were closed. These were punitive measures taken by the Administration against the American people. The public has unfettered access to monuments like the WWII Memorial until essential government workers were dispatched to erect barricades. Peter Braun provides an abridged account, 25 instances, of things that were shut down without cause:

      When the author chooses to lead with a false premise, what follows becomes blah-blah—blah, and I skip to the comments. Are you following?

  4. Submitted by Zed Kurzmann on 10/11/2013 - 09:58 am.

    Slightly off the mark

    Interesting post, but I think that you are slightly off in your interpretation. For most Americans, I don’t think the disconnect is between abstract vs. specifics so much as it is between benefits vs. costs. This is the problem with a lot of polling. If you call me up and ask “Do you think everyone should have health insurance?”; I’m going to say yes. If you ask if I’m willing to have both higher taxes and higher insurance premiums, lose my families coverage from my employer, and increase the deficit so that everyone can have health insurance my answer is going to be no. The benefit to society doesn’t justify the cost, both personally and to society.

    Government spending is the same problem. Most Americans understand that ongoing deficit spending is unsustainable, damages our economy, and steals from future generations. But, when it comes to specific programs, they all have some benefit and we want to keep them.

    That’s why we need elected officials who can make the tough decisions. Congress, preferably with the President’s consent, needs to decide what benefits we can eliminate for the good of the whole.

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