What's The Matter with Government?

Last year, in the wake of the US election, the blogosphere spent much energy debating Thomas Frank’s thesis that working class Republicans voted against their economic interests:

Thomas Frank, author of What’s the Matter with Kansas?, noted in the April issue of Harper’s Magazine, that the poorest county in the United States, Loup County in Nebraska, “a region of struggling ranchers and dying farm towns” gave George W. Bush a majority of over 75% in 2000. Frank writes:

“When I told a friend of mine about that impoverished High Plains county so enamoured of President Bush, she was perplexed. “How can anyone who has ever worked for someone else vote Republican?”, she asked. How could so many people get it wrong? Her question is apt; it is, in many ways, the pre-eminent question of our times. People getting their fundamental interests wrong is what American political life is all about. This species of derangement is the bedrock of our civic order; it is the foundation on which all else rests.”

He goes on to say:

“If you earn more than $300000 a year, you owe a great deal to this derangement. Raise a glass sometime to those indigent High Plains Republicans as you contemplate your good fortune: It is thanks to their self-denying votes that you are no longer burdened by the estate tax, or troublesome labour unions, or meddlesome banking regulators. Thanks to the allegiance of these sons and daughters of toil you have escaped what your affluent forebears used to call “confiscatory” income tax levels. It is thanks to them that you were able to buy two Rolexes this year instead of one…”

However, reflecting on my professed support for non-authoritarian and participative administration, isn’t it possible that poor people in late modern States face a culture of control and coercion from Government? A culture of surveillance and harrassment from authorities of all kinds – cops, social workers, welfare bureaucrats? Anyone had much to do with Centrelink or the Job Network lately? Maybe there’s some reason in the appeal of the small government message to those who are burdened with mutual obligations?

Addendum: Some clarification of the argument of this post in this comment.


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32 responses to “What's The Matter with Government?”

  1. tim

    “Last year, in the wake of the US election, the blogosphere spent much energy debating Thomas Frank?Äôs thesis that working class Republicans voted against their economic interests.”

    No it didn’t.

  2. tim

    “Last year, in the wake of the US election, the blogosphere spent much energy debating Thomas Frank?Äôs thesis that working class Republicans voted against their economic interests.”

    No it didn’t.

  3. Alan

    Perhaps if the opposition addressed these people, instead of singing harmony onto the latest globalisation paean…

  4. Alan

    Perhaps if the opposition addressed these people, instead of singing harmony onto the latest globalisation paean…

  5. Mindy

    I have met a few Americans here in Alice and have briefly discussed the US Election with them. Interestingly most of them didn’t necessarily agree with Bush on the war in Iraq, but voted for him because of his anti-abortion stance. According to them a lot of Americans who vote, do so on the basis of one issue. For them it was right to life which Bush supports while Kerry was pro choice. I’m not sure what Bush had that appealed to Nebraska but if it’s a religious area it could have been as simple as his stance on abortion.

  6. Mindy

    I have met a few Americans here in Alice and have briefly discussed the US Election with them. Interestingly most of them didn’t necessarily agree with Bush on the war in Iraq, but voted for him because of his anti-abortion stance. According to them a lot of Americans who vote, do so on the basis of one issue. For them it was right to life which Bush supports while Kerry was pro choice. I’m not sure what Bush had that appealed to Nebraska but if it’s a religious area it could have been as simple as his stance on abortion.

  7. farthington

    ‘small government’ is just so much globaloney.
    If you want small government join an Amish or Shaker community, and be prepared for universal militia service (unless you want to pay feudal dues to a warlord). And no use of external public or community amenities are allowed.
    The spirit of Republicanism is self-help but the American Republican Party (having grown out of the Whigs) has been dominated by the big end of town since the start. And the big end of town likes big government (in its favour of course).
    If libertarian ideologues and corporate funded free market think tanks take small government seriously, why aren’t anarchist philosophers on their reading list?

  8. farthington

    ‘small government’ is just so much globaloney.
    If you want small government join an Amish or Shaker community, and be prepared for universal militia service (unless you want to pay feudal dues to a warlord). And no use of external public or community amenities are allowed.
    The spirit of Republicanism is self-help but the American Republican Party (having grown out of the Whigs) has been dominated by the big end of town since the start. And the big end of town likes big government (in its favour of course).
    If libertarian ideologues and corporate funded free market think tanks take small government seriously, why aren’t anarchist philosophers on their reading list?

  9. Mark

    tim, well maybe I should have written the Left blogosphere.

    Alan, I agree. Latho certainly wasn’t interested in so doing (and his confused ideas on mutual obligation would have accentuated the problem). The US Demos are still stuck on the corporate bandwagon.

    farthington, yes, it’s baloney and that’s my point. If anything, people get big government from both the Bushies and the Howardians. What interests me is that people in a very disadvantaged class position probably have good reason to perceive government as malign. Those who work pay too much tax while the top end of town pays little and the Libs concentrate on calls for the top rate to be lowered. Those who don’t work are tied up in incredibly complex form filling by Centrelink and often by Job Network providers who treat them as a cash cow and place them under surveillance in effect rather than provide meaningful training. And those who are seen as a problem get hassled by the police.

    What interests me is why “small government” might appeal as a message. I suspect it’s as powerful as “values” but it doesn’t get discussed in this context.

  10. Mark

    tim, well maybe I should have written the Left blogosphere.

    Alan, I agree. Latho certainly wasn’t interested in so doing (and his confused ideas on mutual obligation would have accentuated the problem). The US Demos are still stuck on the corporate bandwagon.

    farthington, yes, it’s baloney and that’s my point. If anything, people get big government from both the Bushies and the Howardians. What interests me is that people in a very disadvantaged class position probably have good reason to perceive government as malign. Those who work pay too much tax while the top end of town pays little and the Libs concentrate on calls for the top rate to be lowered. Those who don’t work are tied up in incredibly complex form filling by Centrelink and often by Job Network providers who treat them as a cash cow and place them under surveillance in effect rather than provide meaningful training. And those who are seen as a problem get hassled by the police.

    What interests me is why “small government” might appeal as a message. I suspect it’s as powerful as “values” but it doesn’t get discussed in this context.

  11. Evil Pundit

    “Small government” appeals, when it does, because government is not a good, but a necessary evil. The less of this evil is necessary, the better.

    The government takes your money in the form of taxes, and tells you what you can do in the form of laws and decrees. Who could like such a thing?

    Having said that, though, I don’t think “small government” was a real issue in any recent election. Everyone knows that the government will continue to be big regardless of which party is elected.

    The big issues were things like national security, abortion, and other moral/ideological concerns. People voted according to their beliefs on the big issues, not according to their narrow perceived self-interest.

  12. Evil Pundit

    “Small government” appeals, when it does, because government is not a good, but a necessary evil. The less of this evil is necessary, the better.

    The government takes your money in the form of taxes, and tells you what you can do in the form of laws and decrees. Who could like such a thing?

    Having said that, though, I don’t think “small government” was a real issue in any recent election. Everyone knows that the government will continue to be big regardless of which party is elected.

    The big issues were things like national security, abortion, and other moral/ideological concerns. People voted according to their beliefs on the big issues, not according to their narrow perceived self-interest.

  13. Mark

    But historically, EP, the liberal message of small government has probably helped to detach traditional ALP/Democratic voters. You have to look below the froth of electoral rhetoric and look at how the parties position themselves over time. Howard certainly appealed to it with reference to self-employed tradespeople and contractors.

    The irony is that those who earn most can make the government work for them while those who earn least find that the government is a monkey on their backs.

    That’s my point.

  14. Mark

    But historically, EP, the liberal message of small government has probably helped to detach traditional ALP/Democratic voters. You have to look below the froth of electoral rhetoric and look at how the parties position themselves over time. Howard certainly appealed to it with reference to self-employed tradespeople and contractors.

    The irony is that those who earn most can make the government work for them while those who earn least find that the government is a monkey on their backs.

    That’s my point.

  15. Evil Pundit

    It’s a good point, and probably does make an impact on people’s voting decisions.

    However, since the end of the Cold War, economics has played a less important part in politics than before. As long as the country is reasonably prosperous, people increasingly vote on issues that aren’t fundamentally economical.

    Many people believe that issues like abortion (and sperm theft!) are more important than whether they have $250 or $270 in their wallet at the end of the week.

  16. Evil Pundit

    It’s a good point, and probably does make an impact on people’s voting decisions.

    However, since the end of the Cold War, economics has played a less important part in politics than before. As long as the country is reasonably prosperous, people increasingly vote on issues that aren’t fundamentally economical.

    Many people believe that issues like abortion (and sperm theft!) are more important than whether they have $250 or $270 in their wallet at the end of the week.

  17. Alan

    An ejaculation is probably inappropriate, but ‘sperm theft’?

  18. Alan

    An ejaculation is probably inappropriate, but ‘sperm theft’?

  19. Mindy

    hey he gave of it freely, how is it theft?

  20. Mindy

    hey he gave of it freely, how is it theft?

  21. Mark

    Don’t get him started!

  22. Mark

    Don’t get him started!

  23. Alan

    Hey, it’s probably premature to paraphrase Proudhon about ejaculation and theft.

  24. Alan

    Hey, it’s probably premature to paraphrase Proudhon about ejaculation and theft.

  25. Michael S.

    I argue over at my blog (see link) e counter argument that comes to mind against Mark’s argument is then why do poor urban electorates (or congressional districts) still go to Labour (or the Democrats). Poorer people in these electorates are often under tighter surveillance by bureaucrats because the services are nearer, rather than people in towns cast further away. Same goes in the States.

    Don’t assume that self interest just lies in policy areas we normally fuss over.The Republicans direct government Pork to America’s rural states in astounding volumes, little need I mention the existence of the National party. Pork can be a lot more persuasive than a potential handout to rural voters. A city based voter may be looking for unemployemnt or health benefits that help them out in lean times in a job market, but an unemployed rural voter may be thinking that keeping the ethanol plant down the street open or more money to fund rural road crews is far more attractive. For people in many rural areas the idea of a job market is kind of laughable. What’s the saying about all politics being local?

    Consider the amazing rhetorical feat the Repbulicans pull off by advertising themselves as an anti-establishment party. They do it on Abortion and Gays, while Howard did it to Aboriginals and ‘illegals’ . Often a political party that is seen to take concrete steps against problems (perceived or real) that they have felt powerless to stop can gain massive support from people who would not agree with a large part of their agenda otherwise.

    I can remember laughing with company at a woman arguing on talkback in 2000 that we should shoot at refugee boats. I bet I know who got her vote the next year.

  26. Michael S.

    I argue over at my blog (see link) e counter argument that comes to mind against Mark’s argument is then why do poor urban electorates (or congressional districts) still go to Labour (or the Democrats). Poorer people in these electorates are often under tighter surveillance by bureaucrats because the services are nearer, rather than people in towns cast further away. Same goes in the States.

    Don’t assume that self interest just lies in policy areas we normally fuss over.The Republicans direct government Pork to America’s rural states in astounding volumes, little need I mention the existence of the National party. Pork can be a lot more persuasive than a potential handout to rural voters. A city based voter may be looking for unemployemnt or health benefits that help them out in lean times in a job market, but an unemployed rural voter may be thinking that keeping the ethanol plant down the street open or more money to fund rural road crews is far more attractive. For people in many rural areas the idea of a job market is kind of laughable. What’s the saying about all politics being local?

    Consider the amazing rhetorical feat the Repbulicans pull off by advertising themselves as an anti-establishment party. They do it on Abortion and Gays, while Howard did it to Aboriginals and ‘illegals’ . Often a political party that is seen to take concrete steps against problems (perceived or real) that they have felt powerless to stop can gain massive support from people who would not agree with a large part of their agenda otherwise.

    I can remember laughing with company at a woman arguing on talkback in 2000 that we should shoot at refugee boats. I bet I know who got her vote the next year.

  27. Mark

    Here’s the direct link to Michael’s post.

    I don’t disagree with what you say, Michael, and I don’t want to make exaggerated claims, although there are some poorer urban electorates which are no longer held by the ALP. What I’m trying to point to though is that the appeal of Right-wing populism isn’t just about “values”, as has been argued again and again since the 2004 Australian and American elections.

  28. Mark

    Here’s the direct link to Michael’s post.

    I don’t disagree with what you say, Michael, and I don’t want to make exaggerated claims, although there are some poorer urban electorates which are no longer held by the ALP. What I’m trying to point to though is that the appeal of Right-wing populism isn’t just about “values”, as has been argued again and again since the 2004 Australian and American elections.

  29. Michael S.

    And may I say I do agree with your argument generally as well Mark.

    I was more taking on Frank’s argument that it is inherently against self interest for the poor to Vte for Right-wing populists

  30. Michael S.

    And may I say I do agree with your argument generally as well Mark.

    I was more taking on Frank’s argument that it is inherently against self interest for the poor to Vte for Right-wing populists

  31. Mark

    Yes, Michael, I think Frank’s argument is a touch too one-sided causally and open to being taken where he doesn’t want it to go – for instance Demos getting all religious and talking about “values” – eg Hillary C.

  32. Mark

    Yes, Michael, I think Frank’s argument is a touch too one-sided causally and open to being taken where he doesn’t want it to go – for instance Demos getting all religious and talking about “values” – eg Hillary C.