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Voters aren’t jerks for changing attitudes

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My nominee for most provocative statement of 2013, journalism division, is courtesy of Christopher Flavelle, a columnist for Bloomberg.

Citing Gallup poll numbers that show an increasing number of Americans dispute the idea that government should make sure everybody has health insurance, Flavelle wrote this: “It’s tempting to see that as an indictment against Obamacare, but it might just mean more Americans are becoming jerks.”

Before everyone starts composing flame-mail to yours truly, let me quickly interject that I do not read the data in quite the same way as Flavelle does.

Flavelle reported that declining support for government’s role in ensuring health care for the citizenry long predates Obamacare. “The number of Americans who think health care is the government’s responsibility hovered around two-thirds for the first half of the 2000s,” then fell to 50 percent in 2010 and to 42 percent this year, he wrote in a Nov. 19 column.

“The shrinkage of American generosity during that period wasn’t just about health care,” he said. “The onset of the recession corresponded with a change in public opinion on a range of issues, and in most cases the effect was to make Americans less caring about others.”

Fewer Americans feel the government should make sure people have enough to eat and have a roof over their heads.

What Flavelle called “increased callousness” extends to the environment and to international affairs. Although 60 percent of Americans polled in 2007 agreed that people should be willing to pay higher prices to protect the environment, only 43 percent agreed with that idea in 2012. Fewer people say they believe the United States has an obligation to help other countries.

Flavelle says bad economic times usually produce a shift in attitudes away from helping others and toward more self-interest. However, a greater willingness to help people in need was climbing six years after the 1990-91 recession ended. It is six years since the 2007 recession and polling numbers continue to trend away from a desire to help others.

The recessions aren’t comparable. The 2007 recession was followed by the 2008 financial panic, the worst such panic since at least the 1930s and possibly the worst ever. Flavelle speculates that panic may have made Americans less inclined to think of their neighbors. Certainly the political landscape is different from what it was in the 1990s. Flavelle also wonders if this new self-centeredness is a manifestation of a national “epidemic of narcissism.”

The “most pessimistic reading” is that Americans are responding to a sense that the economic slump that began in 2007 is a permanent state and, therefore, Americans are forced by an unaccustomed scarcity to become less generous and caring of others.

I am inclined to believe that, far from being jerks, Americans are doing nothing more than confronting the question that we have been asking and answering in widely varying ways since 1776: What is a good society and what can or should a government do to achieve it?

If it is possible to ignore the propaganda, lies, hysteria, incompetence and politics surrounding Obamacare (and I despair that such a thing can be done), what is left is a real-time experiment in governance. Can very large government programs make a positive difference in people’s lives?

The Barack Obamas of the world are convinced they can because the New Deal and aspects of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society have shown that they have. Medicare was every bit as controversial as the Affordable Care Act when it was enacted in 1965 and it had some startup problems. Today, it is treated as if it were handed down to Moses on a mountaintop.

For that matter, a lot of Democrats predicted the end of civilization when George W. Bush pushed the Medicare drug benefit through Congress without finding a way to pay for it. There was a lot of confusion, a lot of glitches when it launched. No one seems to think twice about it today.

There have been dreadful failures, too. No one much misses New Deal-era economic micromanagement through agencies like the Civil Aeronautics Board.

There is no empirical answer to the question, should government embark on such projects? There is only a political answer. That answer is delivered by voters who must decide at every election the sort of government they want. Obama’s re-election was an endorsement of the New Deal style of governance. The 2014 elections could yield a very different decision, which is what the polling data Flavelle has mined suggest may be in the offing.

Being part of that process doesn’t make you a jerk. It makes you a voter.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Winthrop Quigley at 823-3896 or wquigley@abqjournal.com. Go to abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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