While the cost of those programs remains an explosive debate point, people count on them and like them.
There’s no generation gap on some key economic issues, as each generation – baby boomers, their children and those in between – accepts government programs as the norm. Virtually equal numbers think Medicare and Social Security are good for the country, and that it’s government’s responsibility to help those who can’t help themselves.
Head Start still helps preschoolers, and its mandate has broadened. Food stamps have been renamed, and lawmakers have tried hard to cut the program, but help is still widely available. So is the extensive federal aid to education program created in 1965 and, perhaps most significantly, Medicare.
For years, conservatives railed against the government health care program intended for seniors as a classic example of how government was gradually going to control every aspect of one’s life.
“One of the traditional methods of imposing statism or socialism on a people has been by way of medicine,” Ronald Reagan said in 1961, in a talk the American Medical Association distributed in its campaign opposing government-supported health care.
“And if you don’t (stop Medicare) and I don’t do it,” said Reagan, then known as an actor and conservative activist, “one of these days you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it once was like in America when men were free.”
Medicare survived his presidency and grew even under Republican administrations. The prescription drug benefit was added during George W. Bush’s administration, with considerable Republican support.
If people like those specific programs, that doesn’t mean they want more.
Americans see government as too big, too expensive and too unresponsive. They see the nation’s $16.8 trillion debt, they hear stories of overreaching into people’s lives, and they’ve had enough.
Strong majorities, of all generations, think “government controls too much of our daily lives,” Pew found. Seven in 10 last year thought Washington only should run things that cannot be done at the state level, and by a 56-35 percent margin, they preferred a smaller government rather than a bigger one.
Even outrages don’t seem to move attitudes. People remain reluctant to support more regulation of business despite evidence that lax oversight helped trigger the worst economic downturn in 70 years. And in a January survey, Pew found that 53 percent now see government as a threat to their personal rights, up from about one-third 10 years ago.
On one level, liberalism survives and even thrives. People may not brand themselves liberal, and are hardly eager to see more government. But they are happy to live in a country where diversity is accepted and encouraged, where the government status quo improves their lives and, they hope, is here to stay. After all, said Senate Historian Don Ritchie, “People wouldn’t define a lot of programs today as liberal.”