Game Show Government

Democrats advocate Game Show Government.  "Vote for us, and we'll give away cash and prizes.  We'll send you a check!"  On the other side, certain hardcore Republicans say, "Vote for us, and we'll cut your cash and prizes to the bone!  No more checks for you!"

In a poll released Nov. 7, 2011, Gallup reports that 42% of Americans call themselves conservative, while 21% say they're liberal.  What about the rest?  37% identify themselves as moderates.

Who are the 37%?  Hint: they don't belong to the Tea Party.  They're not in the Occupy Wall Street movement.  But they are the most powerful constituency in America.  They decide elections.  Conservatives overlook or scare them, to their own electoral peril.

The most important poll comes out of the voting booth.  We are a deeply divided nation, even when the elections are about small districts, as many were in 2011.  Despite Reagan's oratory gifts, his gobs of charisma, and his pleasant smile, he was never able to bring both the House and Senate into his party.  He still had to work with a divided legislature, making many compromises.  Bush Sr. had to work with a Democratic-controlled Congress during his four years.  Clinton was elected in 1992, and he and the Democrats controlled all of D.C., but the Republicans took over the House and Senate in 1994, where they remained until the end of his second term.  He too had to compromise, which did the country good.

However, when W. took office in January 2001, the Senate was evenly split 50-50, while the Republicans had a small majority in the House.  In 2002 he had majorities in both, but he reinforced Medicare, not restructured it; and in 2004 he had the same majorities -- but not enough to reform Social Security.  Then the Democrats took back the House and Senate in 2006 and kept it in 2008 -- they won big.  During the Obama presidency, the Republicans won the House in 2010, while the Dems kept the Senate.  So in the last thirty years, the executive and legislative branches have zigzagged.

In the presidential big picture, omitting the legislative branch, we have gone from Reagan (a conservative) to Bush Sr. (a moderate conservative) to Clinton (a liberal).  Bush Jr. (a "compassionate" conservative) was elected by the Electoral College, not the popular vote.  And then came Obama (a hyper-liberal).  The trend is clear.  Since Reagan, the presidency has drifted more liberal than conservative.  Call it the "education" (liberalization) of America.

All of this means we're in a fight.  We are not a predominantly conservative country.  Too many conservatives misread the electorate.  Democrats have Game Show Government on their side.  People love it.  And now they need and depend on it.  They won't give it up easily.

So where does it come from?  You know the history.

At the turn of the last century and even before, progressives saw children crawling through coal mines and working in factories, and women laboring a gazillion hours a day in sweatshops.  And the progressives -- both Republicans and Democrats -- and the labor movement passed legislation to stop the abuse.  Big government can bring about big change, says the standard storyline.

But the biggest game show came in the 1930s with the New Deal, surely named as a wink and a nod to Republican TR's Square Deal.  FDR (TR's fifth cousin) sent money, for example, into districts that traditionally did not vote Democrat, but they did after the money flowed their way.  He set up Social Security, and people thought well of it, and still do.  Never mind that Social Security regularly goes broke.  And after several years of the Alphabet Soup, in 1938, according to the League of Nations, the U.S. unemployment rate was 19.8%.  But at least FDR was doing something, say his devoted followers.  "Vote for us; we'll send you a check!"

LBJ waged war on poverty under the aegis of the Great Society (Utopia, the Ultimate Game Show Government).  He instituted Medicare and Medicaid.  People felt good about themselves because they were helping the elderly and poor.  Never mind that we still have the poor.  Never mind that Medicare and Medicaid are broke.  But the left will simply tweak and adjust the game show to eliminate poverty in our time.  "We'll do it!  Just wait and see!  Vote for us; we'll send you a check!"

In 1970 Nixon started the EPA to wage war on pollution.  In 1971 he imposed wage and price controls.  Talk about government intervention, and from a Republican, no less!  Never mind that the controls didn't work.  Ford had to campaign on WIN: Whip Inflation Now!  The EPA has now become oppressive by its overregulation.

Liberals and social reformers and big-government believers of both parties capitalize on the game show, selectively recounting the mixed results.  They proclaim, "See?  Government can bring about positive change.  We have child labor laws.  Eight-hour workdays.  The poor and elderly have government health insurance.  The environment is cleaner now than before 1970.  So, the private sector needs to work together with big government, and big government needs to work together with big business and big labor.  Unify!  Work together!"

The left cleverly markets its tactics to implement its long-term goals in today's political climate.  "The rich must pay their fair share.  It's economic justice.  Conservatives will take away police officers!  More rapes and murders will ensue!  They're for unclean water and dirty air."

Thus, progressives and reformers have worked their magic in society for many decades, such that if a politician sounds anti-government, he (or she) can never win a national election.  Which programs would hyper-conservatives eliminate or cut to the bone?  Be specific.  State-run programs like insane asylums or hospitals or FEMA?  Small family clinics for the poor?  A safety net for the genuinely needy?  State universities and community colleges?  Medicare and Medicaid?  Would they send illegals back to Mexico, in armored buses?  Now that's a winning message!

The examples could go on, but the trend is clear.  Never "misunderestimate" the seductive power of Game Show Government, all in the name of social and economic justice.  When I ask students what such justice looks like in specific terms, they draw a blank.  I suggest to them that over the decades, it boils down to "Vote for us; we'll send you a check!"  Now our checks are no good because our account is overdrawn.

Nonetheless, too many people still believe in the game show.  The 21% do.  Maybe a large number of the 37% does, too.  Hyper-conservatives scare them.  They could never defeat the billion-dollar, sold-out executive producer of the game show: Obama.  This is a big reason why libertarians, who are just one class of hyper-conservatives, never come close to winning anything substantive.

However, all is not lost.  The trend can be stopped.  It is true that 53% elected Obama, but he had to campaign as a centrist.  For example, he said during the third debate that he'd cut (unspecified) taxes for 95% of the people -- tax cuts are a conservative theme.  Everyone now knows he's far-left, though his Senate voting record was available before the campaign, so they are without an excuse.  Obama's self-portrayal as a centrist in Campaign '08 shows that voters are not completely sold out to Game Show Government.  They can recognize some overreach.  In appealing to the 37%, conservatives have reason to hope, but within limits.

Conservatives need strategies that factor in the long monotonous drumbeat of Game Show Government.  We must unwind the magic spell over the long haul.  We must articulate and sell a vision.  Game Show Government is seductive because it offers cash and prizes.  It may be here for good, but maybe it can be reduced.

First off, history is on the conservative side.  Conservatives get beat down with the "Clinton" example.  He was a Democrat, and the 1990s were prosperous and had balanced budgets, but he raised taxes.  See?  Raising taxes isn't bad.  Not so fast.  He had to submit to a Republican House and Senate; he cut (not eliminated) welfare in 1996 and lowered a variety of taxes in 1997, and that's when the economy really took off.  These are conservative issues.  Bush Jr., on the other side, let himself get co-opted by a Democrat-controlled House and Senate in 2006, and that's when things went downhill and got worse in 2008 -- and then much, much worse for the next three fiscal years.

Second, conservatives must explain why and how government and the private sector can still work together.  Conservatives get confused about the differences between libertarianism and conservatism.  You're a Republican and not a libertarian because, yes, you believe government has a role to play, and maybe a strong role to boot, but exactly how big or small is open to debate.

Then why do so many conservatives keep coming across as ruthlessly antigovernment? Why don't they articulate a vision for how limited (not emaciated) government has a role to play?  Republicans need to advocate a government somewhere between a morbidly obese Uncle Sam and a figure who looks like he just got out of the Andersonville prison camp.

Where would conservatives draw the line on government cuts?  What do they offer as an alternative to the game show?  An attempted right-wing coup that frightens away the 37% after a hundred years of the game show?  Austere self-denial?  A mean old white guy who says, "Don't go for the cash and prizes!"?  And it's not enough to say, "The Founders said so!"  Or "We're broke!"  Or "Big government is a tyranny!"...though those three points should be included in the message, as the second one has in this article.

Third, the message needs to be presented -- marketed -- in a modern way that factors in the game show.  Americans are comfortable, and comfortable people don't like sudden electoral changes.  Even "centrist" Obama figured that out in Campaign '08.  Change is done incrementally -- but intelligently, deliberately, strategically, and methodically -- in the American Republic in 2011.  That's the reality today.  Whoever wins the Republican primaries in 2012, conservatives must never "misunderestimate" the magical power of Game Show Government, or they will face electoral defeat in November.

It will take decades to undo the spell, if it can be done.  Move slowly, but surely.

James M. Arlandson has written a book: Women, Class, and Society in Early Christianity. He has recently completed two books: Conversations about God and Life, and Faith and The Sword in Early Christianity and Islam: the Major Differences.  He is two-thirds of the way through another one: Divine Islamic Law: Why Shariah Must Submit to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

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