- - Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Americans have always been skeptical of their federal government. It’s in the republic’s DNA. The founding fathers even wrote the Second Amendment into the Constitution, just in case. But skepticism in our time has become something close to contempt. The Gallup Poll finds that almost half the country says the United States government is “an immediate threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary Americans.”

The latest poll demonstrates a dramatic increase from a poll in 2003, when only a third of respondents felt that way. Now that number has grown to 49 percent of adults 18 and older.

A majority of those holding that view are Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. When George W. Bush was president — the subject was first broached in 2003 — the majority of those fearful of government overreach were Democrats. Gallup says this shows that “these attitudes reflect more of a response to the president and disagreement with his policies than a fundamental feeling about the federal government in general.” That’s putting a rosy cast on it.

The findings suggest that Americans are still concerned that the government is too big and spends too much, and have an understanding that a government big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take away everything you have. The government’s power to curry, thwart and obstruct is awesome, writing a proliferation of regulations that carry criminal penalties. The impact of agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Labor Relations Board, and the Federal Communications Commissions can stifle economic growth and job creation, and small wonder that the people are concerned that their basic rights are endangered.

The largest single perceived threat cited — at 12 percent of all respondents — is the fear that the Second Amendment is most at risk. Gallup says this reflects concerns about what government is actually doing, not an overall philosophical concern that the government has grown so large that basic liberties are imperiled. Maybe. But maybe there’s more.

America was founded by hardscrabble settlers who wanted most of all to be left alone. The federal government was limited by the Constitution, which gave the government carefully and closely enumerated powers intended to protect individual liberties against federal encroachment. Those protections are still there, but honored more in the breech than in actual observance. Same-sex marriage has been forced on the states by a closely divided U.S. Supreme Court, with the majority opinion written by an addled justice more as a love poem to gays than carefully reasoned legal jurisprudence. The people are coerced into accepting something — a man can be the bride if he likes, a woman can carry her spouse over the threshold if she can pick him up — and nearly everyone understands this is sanity stood on its head. The right to conscience, on which the republic was founded, is thrown to the wind.

Nevertheless, the size and the scope of government remains what Gallup calls “a key issue for our time.” The candidates who are doing the best in the current primary season are those perceived by voters to be furthest removed from levers and authority of government power. Therein dwells the hope, small and forlorn as it may sometimes be, for lasting change.

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