Americans have supported, or have come to support, specific governmental remedies, such as Social Security, the minimum wage, and environmental and consumer protections. But, when a new program that expands government is proposed, they have displayed a general ideological predisposition against the power of government. As Obama tries to get his reform agenda through Congress, this predisposition is already proving to be a formidable obstacle.
Americans’ skepticism about government dates at least from the Revolution. In The Liberal Tradition in America, published in 1955, political scientist Louis Hartz described the Americans of 1776 as “Lockean liberals.” He was using the term “liberal” in its classic connotation--more like today’s free-market conservative or libertarian. Americans, he perceived, envisaged the state as strictly limited to protecting property relations among equal producers. They saw strong government--which they identified with the British crown--as a threat to economic and political freedom. Government, in Thomas Paine’s words, was a “necessary evil.”