Americans’ trust in government institutions has plummeted over recent decades. We have experienced huge declines in confidence across the board, including for Congress, the presidency, the Supreme Court, even the Defense Department and the Food and Drug Administration.
We have also seen huge cleavages by party, with Republicans having substantially less faith than Democrats that government can be trusted to do the right (or even merely competent) thing. On almost every core function of government — such as strengthening the economy or keeping the country safe — Republicans evaluate the public sector’s performance more negatively than Democrats do, according to Pew Research Center polling.
After watching the Republican National Committee’s convention this week, I think I’ve figured out what’s going on.
The problem is that Americans — and conservatives in particular — claim to want small, stingily funded government. But they’re making bigger (and more expensive, and less legally achievable) demands about what government should be responsible for.
This cognitive dissonance inevitably leads to disillusionment.
In other words: Deep down, Republicans want a nanny state, but they just can’t bring themselves to admit it.
What kind of nanny state do these alleged fans of limited government desire? The kind that fulfills their wildest fantasies, yes, but more important that cocoons their constituents from offense, discomfort and perhaps even financial distress.
As illustrated by the 2016 GOP platform, they want government to protect heterosexual couples from the indignity of having their marriages seen as equal, in the eyes of the law, to marriages between same-sex partners.
They likewise want policymakers to bar transgender Americans from using the public bathroom of their choice, lest those in neighboring bathroom stalls feel vaguely threatened.
They want government to protect religious freedom, yet they also want government to expel holders of select religious beliefs — a policy that couldn’t possibly pass constitutional muster even if you could figure out a way to implement it. (People can lie about their religious beliefs, after all.)
They also want their small, spartan government to round up and deport 11 million immigrants in the country illegally, quickly and on the cheap, but “in a very humane way, a very nice way.”
They want government to keep consumer prices low, but also to curb imports of competing products that help keep those consumer prices low. Avocados, for example. Or electronics.
They apparently want government to protect workers from the threat of technological innovation. At least that’s one way to interpret all the stumping for coal, an industry whose main challenge comes from competition from natural gas, which technology has made much cheaper to extract. Or the pandering to U.S. manufacturing, whose output is up but workforce size is not. Again, thanks to technology.
They want government to mandate funerals for miscarriages. They want it to micromanage the width of hallways in reproductive health clinics and the medical center affiliations of abortion providers. They want policymakers to protect their constituents from the temptations of pornography and medical marijuana.
They want government to lock up or even execute conservatives’ perceived political enemies.
They (like the left) even want government to break up the banks.
And so on.
These are not the positions of a party that truly, madly, deeply desires limited government.
This is not a leave-me-alone coalition, at least not one that can credibly consider itself a foil to the left’s Big Brotherism. This is not a movement that wants bureaucrats to get out of the way and let the markets, spiked with human ingenuity, set the pace of economic and social progress.
This is a vision for a government that muscles its way into nearly every waking moment, that provides safe spaces for emotionally and financially fragile constituents, that sees its supporters as economically and socially beleaguered victims in need of protection and protectionism.
This is a party that, while decrying executive-branch overreach (tyranny, even), hopes to populate the White House with a strongman who sees few constraints on his power at home or abroad.
In other words, this is a party in denial.
Democrats generally recognize themselves to be in favor of big(ger) government and, as a corollary, generally acknowledge that they need to fund it accordingly. Republican leaders tell themselves they favor smaller government, while simultaneously demanding that government powers intervene in more and more areas of American life.
They want government to do more with less; they should act less surprised when government inevitably disappoints them.
Catherine Rampell is an opinion columnist at The Washington Post.