Wyoming has moved right, the country has not moved left

One divisive debate is how big government should be. That’s a matter of contested values, not resolvable by information alone. But a different divisive argument is about the trends. Is government getting more or less expansive and intrusive? Most on the left think we live in an era of neoliberalism and a retreating state. Not so on the right. Jack Healy reports in the New York Times:

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — By now, voters here are over the initial shock. The ranchers, businessmen and farmers across this deep-red state who knew, just knew that Americans would never re-elect a liberal tax-and-spender president have grudgingly accepted the reality that voters did just that.
But since the election, a blanket of baffled worry has descended on conservatives here like early snow across the plains. … “It’s a fundamental shift,” said Khale Lenhart, 27, a lawyer here. “It’s a mind-set change — that government is here to take care of me.”

I’d say the shift–in Wyoming as in the nation–has been in the opposite direction. Consider, first, the shift in public rhetoric. In 1948, Harry S. Truman won Wyoming by about 4,000 votes. This is what he said in his inaugural address the following January:

We have rejected the discredited theory that the fortunes of the Nation should be in the hands of a privileged few. We have abandoned the “trickledown” concept of national prosperity. Instead, we believe that our economic system should rest on a democratic foundation and that wealth should be created for the benefit of all. The recent election shows that the people of the United States are in favor of this kind of society and want to go on improving it. The American people have decided that poverty is just as wasteful and just as unnecessary as preventable disease.

Truman then offered a whole series of diagnoses and prescriptions that he believed followed from his opening statement of principles. For example: “In a nation as rich as ours, it is a shocking fact that tens of millions lack adequate medical care. We are short of doctors, hospitals, nurses. We must remedy these shortages. Moreover, we need—and we must have without further delay—a system of prepaid medical insurance which will enable every American to afford good medical care.”

In those days (or soon thereafter), the national government was involved directly in welfare, urban planning, and school integration; it drafted most young men; and it regulated the financial markets. It has retreated in all those important—and potentially invasive—areas. Whether that retreat is good or bad is debatable, but the trend is unmistakable.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.