Americans Relate to Founders, Not Progressives

Democrats are reportedly planning to raise $125 million for a campaign to sell Obamacare to the voting public. Apparently the idea is that what 50-plus presidential speeches and statements and months of congressional debate could not do can be done by $125 million spent on everything from TV ads to community organizers.

Maybe. But there seems to be a more fundamental problem here. The Obama Democrats didn't set out to produce an unpopular stimulus package, an unpopular health care bill and an unpopular cap-and-trade scheme.

They thought these initiatives would be popular. In their view, history is a story of progress from small government to big government and, as historians of the New Deal wrote, that progress is especially welcome in times of economic distress.

The massive unpopularity of the Obama Democrats' programs suggests that view of history is defective. Let me propose another, starting with the Founding Fathers.

The Founders believed there was a tension between representative government and the right to life, liberty and property. So they wrote the Fifth Amendment to insure that no citizen was deprived of those rights without due process of law.

In Britain, that tension had been limited by allowing only property owners to vote. That way, those without property could not elect representatives who would steal from the rich and give to the poor.

A nation of property owners is less willing to plunder the property of others in search of some promised gain than a nation where most people don't and will never own significant property.

In the early years of our republic, that precaution did not seem necessary. We were a nation of farmers where land was plentiful and labor scarce. The large majority of citizens then considered relevant--white adult males--actually owned the land they farmed. There was no danger in allowing all of them to vote, because the large majority owned property.

The definition of relevant citizens in time expanded to include blacks and women. But as Americans and immigrants increasingly clustered in enormous cities, and as large industrial factories employed thousands of low-skill workers, the percentage of property owners fell.

One hundred years ago, most urban Americans rented rather than owned their homes. Many had no bank accounts and few had significant financial assets. Elites worried that this proletariat might rise in revolution.

In this America, the Progressives argued that the Founders' vision was obsolete. Property rights should be subordinate to human rights. Government should regulate economic activity and "spread the wealth around," as Barack Obama told Joe the Plumber.

This view animated the New Deal in the 1930s and appealed to the non-property-owning majority. Franklin Roosevelt sowed the idea, harvested by the New Deal historians, that an ever-expanding government was both good and necessary. Democrats were referencing this when they said they were "making history" by passing their health care bill.

Their problem is that the America of the Progressives and New Dealers no longer exists. Government home finance programs helped make us a nation of homeowners. Technological progress and deregulation squeezed out transportation and communications and made the necessities of life less costly, enabling citizens to accumulate significant wealth in their working years.

True, we carried some of these things too far. Efforts to raise homeownership over 65 percent resulted in a housing price crash. Poorly understood financial innovations resulted in the financial crisis of 2008.

But we still live in an America like the America of the Founders, and unlike the America of the Progressives and the New Dealers, in which a majority of citizens are or have every prospect of becoming property owners. And a nation of property owners is less willing to plunder the property of others in search of some promised gain than a nation where most people don't and will never own significant property.

So when Susan Roesgen, then of CNN, upbraided a Tea Party protester in 2009 by reminding him that he was getting a $400 tax rebate thanks to the Democrats' stimulus package, she was met with utter dismissal. You don't sell out your property rights for a mere $400.

The polls and the post-2008 election results show that the purported beneficiaries of the Obama Democrats' programs are unenthusiastic about voting and people with modest incomes are trending heavily Republican. The only enthusiasm for the Obama Democrats' policies comes from David Brooks's "educated class": people who are or identify with the centralized experts tasked by the Obama Democrats with making decisions for the rest of us. Unfortunately for the Obama Democrats, they, unlike property owners, are not a majority in today's America.

Michael Barone is a resident fellow at AEI.

Photo credit: Flickr user Whole Wheat Toast/Creative Commons.

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