At his inaugural address in January 1981, Ronald Reagan famously questioned the role of government in American life:
“Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem … We are a nation that has a government – not the other way around. And this makes us special among the nations of the Earth. Our government has no power except that granted it by the people. It is time to check and reverse the growth of government, which shows signs of having grown beyond the consent of the governed.”
This view has dominated American politics ever since, to the point where “big government” became a pejorative, weaponised by Republicans – and feared by Democrats. In his 1996 State of the Union address, President Bill Clinton felt it necessary to reassure voters that “the era of big government is over.”
The success of Democratic presidential primary contenders like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren is a sign that Americans are rethinking that Reaganite paradigm. For this new wave of progressives, the idea of a “special nation” is one in which big government is a necessary part of solving the problems America faces. Since becoming a national political figure, Sanders has visited Canada to learn more about its single-payer health care system, and suggested the US “should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn what they have accomplished for their working people.”
Conventional wisdom holds that, in a democracy, the governance model is a reflection of the preference of its people. While Europeans support an expansive role for government in providing economic security to everyone, Americans prefer a limited involvement of government in helping specifically those in need.
In other words, Europeans prefer egalitarianism, whereas Americans prefer humanitarianism. Egalitarianism and humanitarianism are, respectively, the philosophical bases for big and small versions of how governments protect their citizens from the vagaries of capitalism.
Stanley Feldman, a political scientist at Stony Brook University who documented American attitudes on social policy in the 1990s, attributed the preference for humanitarianism over egalitarianism to a unique American ethos in which the former is considered more compatible with sacrosanct individualism: “Americans are humanitarian not in spite of their individualism, but because of it. Americans believe that people should take responsibility for solving their own problems. At the same time, problems are sometimes too large for a single individual to solve, and when this is the case it is a moral right to ask for help and a moral duty to provide it.”
The clarity of hindsight, though, begs the question of whether his conclusion was affected by the era in which it was drawn; whether there is such a thing as an American ethos that is unaffected by circumstance. What if humanitarianism isn’t a perennial determinant of policy preferences but a response to the political climate of the time?
If so, what were the antecedents? One was the historical anomaly that led to health insurance being provided by employers rather than government, leaving a significant minority of Americans uninsured, and ultimately leaving the left no choice but to pursue a humanitarian solution like Obamacare. A related antecedent was Reagan’s small government movement, which had become so popular by the time Feldman was writing that even Democrats drank the Kool-Aid. Looking back, the nineties might be viewed as peak conservatism, before the downsides of starve-the-beast economics and deregulation became too obvious to deny.
Once the right defined itself by a commitment to small government, and this became a winning strategy, the left was defined in opposition, and expedient tacking to the centre meant proposing the “smallest” possible policy solutions. Egalitarian policies such as single-payer health care were written-off as radically leftist, and even popular social insurance programs like Social Security and Medicare came under threat from third-way centrists who insisted that entitlement reform was a fiscal necessity.
Despite the passage of time, and despite ample evidence that working hard and playing by the rules is no longer a guarantee of what many Americans consider an acceptably secure standard of living, many Democrats – from both centre and left – remain stuck in the humanitarian moment. For example, Democrats were unified in defence of humanitarian Obamacare during the 2018 midterm campaign, and they credited their success to this strategy, even though the popularity of Obamacare has never exceeded lukewarm, and the election was clearly also a referendum on Trump.
Centrists are failing to see that change is in the air. If liberal overreach once enabled the rise of small-government conservatism, then conservative overreach – in the form of stubborn commitment to long-since-debunked economic theories – has finally opened minds to the possibility that government is the solution to some problems.
For their part, leftists like Sanders are in the habit of using humanitarian language to promote egalitarian policy solutions.
Medicare-for-All, which would provide significant improvements – over the current employer-based model – to the health coverage of most working Americans, is promoted with the tagline “health care is a right, not a privilege.” Using “right” makes people think that the policy is beneficial only for those who do not have health insurance, and using “privilege” challenges the deserved sense of accomplishment felt by those who have worked hard to secure a job with health benefits.
Such language choices inadvertently (and unnecessarily) provoke wariness from many who would benefit from egalitarian policies. And this wariness, when communicated through polling and at the ballot-box, convinces centrists – not unreasonably – that they are correct to doubt that America is ready for bigger government.
Egalitarianism in theory and practice
I have suggested that Americans are not that unlike Europeans, in that they want to be insured against the worst-case scenarios and that they are starting to see that bigger, more egalitarian government is the way forward.
So, what does it mean to say that Europeans are egalitarian? The evidence suggests egalitarianism is an effect of living in a society with strong social insurance protections. When citizens experience the benefits of these protections, such as in Britain with the National Health Service (NHS), they are primed to defend them – including from governments that want to scale back protections because of austerity measures.
The ensuing public protests are populated by citizens defending their own interests, rather than the interests of the least fortunate. In other words, this is not humanitarianism. Nor is it egalitarianism, though, as it’s typically understood – as a remedy for inequality. In practice, egalitarianism has a lot more to with selfishly defending the status quo rather than with selflessly demanding a more level playing field.
Egalitarianism and humanitarianism are not simply different – they are incompatible. Often, the existing beneficiaries of social insurance feel threatened when told that protections are going to be extended to new beneficiaries. It is as if they believe that the same size pie now has to be sliced even thinner in order to accommodate more guests.
The rise of right-wing populism in Europe has been aided by twin threats to the egalitarian status quo: weakening protections for existing citizens in the name of austerity, and extending protections to poor refugees in the name of humanitarianism.
Despite its vulnerabilities, though, egalitarian solidarity is a net positive force in European societies that is worthy of emulation by the United States. The key is to extend social insurance protections to all citizens under the same umbrella, as with the Medicare-for-All proposal. Only then will cuts that do not immediately affect you – say, because you are healthy at the moment – feel like cuts that you should nevertheless oppose, because you know you won’t always be healthy.
In a multi-payer system, entitlement reformers can cut one program without making beneficiaries of other programs feel threatened. Even worse, reformers can use a divide-and-conquer approach that leads you to blame the beneficiaries of other programs for cuts to your program. For example, the rise of right-wing populism in the US was fueled by fears that Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion – justified by proponents on humanitarian grounds – would be paid for by cuts to egalitarian Medicare.
Although Medicare-for-All is a good policy, its proponents have a bad marketing plan. Their use of humanitarian language makes those with insurance wary that a single-payer system is only good for the uninsured. An effective marketing plan might instead emphasise that: “Your personal health expenses will become increasingly unaffordable unless we do something about our current multi-payer system.”
As for the centrists who unite with Republicans on entitlement reform, they are preventing the beneficiaries of popular egalitarian programs from seeing which political party is their true enemy. If expedience is the centrists’ motive, then they should wonder why they have found themselves to the right of the likes of right-wing populists like Fox News host Tucker Carlson on pocketbook issues.
The next instalment of this series will show that egalitarian government – despite its size – can be popular in America as long as it is perceived as fair.
This is a three-part series. Part two, which argues that such a government expansion can be popular as long as it is perceived as fair, will be released next week. Part three, which offers advice to the Democratic Party about how to make such an expansion happen, will be released the week after.
Dan Meegan (@DanMeeganJr) was born and raised in the United States and now lives in Canada, where he is a professor of political psychology. For a book-length treatment of the ideas presented here, see America the Fair: Using Brain Science to Create a More Just Nation.