Op-ed: Why the public doesn’t buy social security accounts

George W. Bush‘s best efforts to rally public support for Social Security privatization have met with failure. Although more people now perceive a problem, few perceive a crisis. Worse for the president, two months of salesmanship have actually lowered his approval rating on the issue. People do not seem to want private accounts if it means fundamental changes to a program that has a strong track record of success.

The reason for the Administration‘s failure is that Americans actually trust the government in Washington to administer programs that don‘t require them to make sacrifices, programs like Social Security.

Starting in the late 1960s and accelerating through the 1970s, Americans‘ trust in government went into freefall. In 1966, 65 percent said they trusted the government in Washington to do what was right at least most of the time. Such positive feelings about government fueled Great Society innovation. By 1980, only 25 percent did. Although trust has gone up and down a little since, Americans‘ trust in government has never approximated 1960s levels for any sustained period.

Since the federal government is the delivery system for progressive public policy, low public trust in government provides an advantageous opinion environment for enemies of “big government.” Conservatives can raise public concern about many new programs (think health care reform in 1994) simply by reminding people that government will be involved. Although the public has not grown much more conservative since the Great Society years, it has grown a lot more distrustful of government. That is a key reason Republicans have dominated the White House since 1968 and public policy has grown more conservative.

Conservatism and distrust are not, however, the same thing. Philosophical conservatives, such as those occupying right leaning think tanks and many in this Administration, want government to do less and economic markets to do more in all areas, save defense and law and order. But the public does not share these preferences. Americans are willing to pay for most things that “big government” does, such as provide good highways, a clean environment, and better schools.

Although many pundits talk about a right turn in public opinion, none has occurred. Instead, most Americans harbor a distrust of the federal government. This may seem like the same thing, but there is an important distinction between distrust and conservatism.

The politically distrustful only want to limit what government does in areas where they pay the costs but don‘t receive the benefits. Welfare is a good example. Middle class people hate welfare because they have to pay for it, but they don‘t perceive they get anything in return. People would mind paying for welfare less if they trusted that government could help recipients improve their lives, which would make the country a better place.

Opponents of big government programs can use public distrust to their advantage, but only if they can make people perceive that they will have to make sacrifices. The demise of the Clinton health care reform effort is instructive. In 1993, most Americans approved of Clinton‘s plan. By late 1994, most didn‘t. Conservatives turned opinion against reform by telling Americans who were satisfied with their existing coverage that the proposed changes would mean for them less coverage and less choice.

Social Security is different. Its very long term health may be shaky, but, for 70 years, those who have paid into the program have benefited from it. Since it requires little in the way of sacrifice, people do not have to trust government much to continue to support the program in its present form. Hence conservatives cannot tap into widespread public distrust of government to generate support for fundamental changes.

Although anti-government rhetoric is powerful at election time, conservatives since the Reagan Revolution have had less success reducing the role of the federal government outside of income redistribution. When Newt Gingrich and his insurgents tried to eliminate the Department of Education and funding for PBS, for example, the public balked. The 30 percent of Americans who thought of themselves as conservatives agreed with Gingrich, but the 75 percent of Americans who where distrustful of government still wanted to watch Sesame Street.

It has been ten years since conservatives last misread distrust of the federal government for conservatism, which contributed to Bill Clinton‘s reelection in 1996. In the case of Social Security privatization, it appears they have done it again.

Marc J. Hetherington is Associate Professor of Political Science at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of Why Trust Matters: Declining Political Trust and the Demise of American Liberalism. He can be reached at (615) 322-6240 or by email at marc.j.hetherington@vanderbilt.edu.

Media contact: Ann Marie Deer Owens, (615) 322-NEWS