Rupert Cornwell: Why can't the US learn to love its government?

Out of America: Suspicion of rulers dates to the founding of the nation – and even Obama is unlikely to change that
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The Independent Online

What is it about Americans and government? The tea-party crowd were back in town the other day – more than 5,000 of them, gathered on the West Lawn of the Capitol to rail against the historic healthcare reform bill that the House of Representatives is expected to pass this weekend.

The passions the measure has generated among its Republican opponents have been remarkable. One Republican Congresswoman has declared that health reform was a greater threat to America than Osama bin Laden and global terrorism, while John Boehner, the party's leader in the House, urged the protesters to join Republicans in "defending our freedom".

A neutral observer would not know whether to laugh or cry at this so-called "Super Bowl of Freedom", featuring inter alia a giant banner describing the proposals as "National Socialist Healthcare, Dachau, Germany, 1945". Yes, the tea-party movement, currently touring the country, contains more than its share of cranks and nutters. But the fringes, too, can express political truths. This particular truth is that Americans just can't bring themselves to love government.

When President Barack Obama came to power, the stage seemed set for government activism unmatched in decades. The parallels with the early 1930s were palpable. Talk of a second Great Depression was everywhere, economists were urging a "new New Deal", Franklin Roosevelt was suddenly back in fashion. Nine months on, however, the urgency seems to have vanished. And why this cooling of reformist ardour? True, the economy has improved (though not by much, as evidenced by the news that unemployment last month rose to 10.2 per cent, the highest level in a quarter of a century.) The huge deficits being run up by Washington are also legitimate cause for concern. A more important reason though is America's ancestral suspicion of government.

The governors' elections in New Jersey and Virginia last week, in which Mr Obama's Democrats were soundly defeated, were largely local affairs. But in so far as they sent a message to the party that controls the White House and both chambers of Congress, the message was plain: slow down, the voters said, don't force change down the people's throats. With a young and charismatic President who won power by promising change, it's easy to forget that the US is a conservative country. Mr Obama triumphed in 2008 not by harnessing a vast tide of liberalism, but by persuading the wavering centre that he was a better bet than another four years of discredited Republican policies. In Virginia and New Jersey, exit polls showed, the centrists (moderates, independents, call them what you will) changed their minds and decided to put on the brakes.

A fascinating Gallup survey last month found that despite the Democrats' victories in 2006 and 2008, fully 40 per cent of Americans, more than ever, describe themselves as conservative, while 36 per cent call themselves moderates. Only 20 per cent are avowed liberals. It's not a question of government having failed the country. It's just that Americans aren't comfortable with the beast when its role, as now, threatens to expand – even when the deficiencies of the unfettered free market have never been more glaring.

Mr Obama secured his record-breaking $787bn stimulus package last February, albeit with virtually no Republican support. But that might be it. Yes, the House will probably pass a version of healthcare reform, but the measure could yet founder in the Senate, where party discipline is weaker, and a 60 per cent majority is required to pass anything of significance. If it does fail, it will basically be for fear that the reform amounts to a "government takeover of healthcare". The most contentious part of the bill is the "public option" – whereby a publicly financed scheme would be set up to provide some competition to rapacious private insurers. But that option now hardly dares speak its name. Leading Democrats prefer to speak of a "consumer option".

And health care is but one of three massive public policy issues on the table, beside a green energy programme to combat climate change, and regulation of the financial markets, aimed at preventing a repeat of last year's crisis. But there's no guarantee any of them will get through. For Europeans, all three would be no-brainers: assured health coverage for all (or rather almost all), steps to reduce both pollution and imports of costly foreign oil, and curbs on the excesses of Wall Street. Not so in the US – because each implies a substantial increase in the role of government.

And it has been ever thus. Suspicion of government is as old as the Republic. The movement that turned up on Capitol Hill again last week takes its name, of course, from the Boston Tea Party of 1773. Americans like to see their War of Independence as a revolution against government – back then the far-away government in London that taxed the colonies without allowing them representation – and the habit has never died.

These days, one thing unites every presidential candidate: a readiness to denounce the federal government in Washington and all its works. That the candidate in question might have made a long and comfortable career in that den of corruption and iniquity makes not a scrap of difference. Usually – as now – the sentiment works to the advantage of Republicans, but not always. Sometimes, the beneficiary can be a genuine outsider like the eccentric Texan businessman Ross Perot, who in 1992 came closer to winning the White House than any independent in 80 years. Sometimes it takes on the hyperbolic aspect of the tea-party crowd, and last summer's raucous town-hall protests against health reform. And on occasion it spills over into tragedy, into the raw hatred of Timothy McVeigh, who blew up the federal government building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people.

No one is more aware of how distrust of government is part of America's collective political DNA than Mr Obama. Whether he can tame it is another matter.