Are 'They' Or 'We' The Government?

The debates on health care and bailouts are two disputes over government intervention in the U.S. In an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, Joseph Ellis takes the long view on these modern arguments and attitudes we've inherited from Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

In town halls across the country, conservative Americans are protesting government intervention in health care. Democrats and Republicans argue about who is orchestrating these disruptions and whether they constitute productive criticism or mere shouting. But the real dispute, according to historian Joseph Ellis, is between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. It's about whether you regard government as them or as us.

What do you think? Should the government do more or less on health care, the economy, the environment? Our number is 800-989-8255, the email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joseph Ellis joins us now from the studios from member station WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts. His op-ed "Them Versus Us" appeared in the Los Angeles Times yesterday. Welcome back to the program.

Professor JOSEPH ELLIS (History, Mount Holyoke College): Thank you, Lynn. Pleasure to be with you.

NEARY: Now, you write in your op-ed that all United States political history can be understood as a perpetual debate between two competing perspectives. Perhaps you can set out those two perspectives for us.

Prof. ELLIS: Well, I guess the founding documents of the nation are the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The Declaration recognizes sovereignty in the individual - in Jefferson's quite lyrical prose, the right of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness for each individual, and describes government as a kind of alien force that must be minimized in our daily lives. The Constitution cordons off a certain area protected by the Bill of Rights where government cannot intrude, but otherwise sees us a collective, as in the first three words of the document, We, the people.

Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton began that battle back in the 1790s. And it certainly continued throughout the 19th and 20th century. And in the 19th century, it's, without question, Jefferson's view of minimalist government was dominant, and it still enjoys enormous popularity.

But I think since the beginning of the 20th century, as we moved from an agrarian to an industrial, from a rural to an urban, from a society to a population that's much more multicultural and with many different racial and ethnic groups, the role of government in our lives has expanded and created institutions that, I think, most Americans would regard as important and essential. The Federal Reserve board, Social Security, the Environmental Protection Association, even National Public Radio.

And so, this conservatives always see creeping socialism whenever any kind of new government program comes forward. And I think that that's the point of view of the conservative critics of the current Obama health care legislation.

NEARY: Well, let's - before we get into that, let's just - a little more history if you could. Why did the Jeffersonian position prevail in the 19th century? Why did that work then? And why do we need, perhaps, something different now?

Prof. ELLIS: In an agrarian world, in a continent that's not - there's still a frontier, a dispersed population government, and where technology doesn't allow a government to get in to peoples' lives much at all; the largest entity was usually the country and, maybe beyond that, the state. So, state governments had some influence. I think it was also true that in the south, southern political leaders recognize that if you grant federal sovereignty over domestic legislation, you put slavery at risk. And so it served that purpose as well.

But once you begin to get major corporations, and once you begin to get the beginnings of a true national industrial economy, the excesses of the marketplace become quite obvious. And the Gilded Age and the discrepancy of wealth and the corporate greed, produced legislation at the beginning - at the end of - the beginning the 20th century to regulate those excesses.

NEARY: What I think is so interesting about this is that you are saying that there's kind of a collective mindset behind one perspective or the other that has persisted through the centuries. And is a very much a part of the way we played our politics today on…

Prof. ELLIS: That's right. The Constitution didn't solve this problem. It set up a framework where the argument could keep going. It sets up a coherent framework in which each generation can argue out the - its perspective. And I think that health care represents the current frontier in this argument. And I think that the conservatives who are very wary of a government single-payer system, let's say, are - they have a lot of historical ammunition and they have probably the most resonant historical figure in American history, Thomas Jefferson, on their side. I don't think they have most of the - history of the 20th century on their side. And I think that there's a certain amount of irrationality here.

I mean, when a gentleman - an elderly gentleman gets up in one of the states in one of the town meetings and says he doesn't want government between him and his doctor, he's receiving a Social Security check every month and he's probably on Medicare. And so there's a - I don't want to say paranoia, but I think that there's an excessive fear here. And it's - it's quite clear that some of the people in these meetings have been orchestrated, have been recruited by right-wing groups and sent in there to speak a party line. I don't say all of them. I don't know how many. But someone said that it's not a grassroots movement, it's more of an AstroTurf movement.

NEARY: What other issues do you see - where else do you see these ideas playing out in our debates over policy issues?

Prof. ELLIS: Well, I mean, from my point of view, I think that the resolution of the fiscal crisis and the banking crisis, if you will, we were prevented from taking the kind of action that many economists believe was essential, namely to temporarily nationalize the banks in order to purge them of those toxic investments and then restore them and allow them back and move away from them. We couldn't do that because the stock market might go nuts if it perceives this is a government-sponsored program or government ownership. And similarly, I think the cap-and-trade legislation that is a response to global warming is in, I don't know, it's on life support in the House of Representatives right now because there's real resistance to having the government intrude into the marketplace.

In a way, the individualistic served us so darn well throughout most of the 19th century. Now, it's a bit of a burden, it seems to me, and I think that Europe can respond to these problems more easily than we can. I think it does depend on whether or not you think health care, in this instance, is something that is a national right of citizenship or whether it's a privilege. And if you do think it's a national right, then the collective interest of the whole people has to be represented in the government in setting the standards for it.

NEARY: We're talking with history professor Joseph Ellis about his op-ed "Them Versus Us." If you'd like to join the discussion, the number is 800-989-8255. We're going to take a call from William(ph) in Jacksonville, Florida. Hi, William.

WILLIAM (Caller): Good afternoon. I'm trying to figure out what is this government (unintelligible) for what I get is GOP-backed outburst about with these town hall meetings. I mean, it's almost like it's inciting a riot from what I've seen on television. I wonder, does it have anything to do with Obama being the president, or is it that, you know, the Democrats are in the majority? You know, like, sometime, like a whining child, when you've been on top, you know? I'm looking at Humpty Dumpty, you know, it was - had a great fall and they can't seem to - couldn't get him back together again, so what they do is they just like grasping for straws. But this is a very dangerous precedent being set, you know, because what if it spills into the streets?

NEARY: All right. Thanks for your call, William. I'm going to ask our guest to respond, if you have a response.

Prof. ELLIS: I think that some of the - some of the debates were staged and, as I said, orchestrated. Some of them weren't, and some of the people who are scared about any kind of federal role in health care are genuinely scared. I think they're especially elderly people, who think that their own end might be determined by legislation or by guidelines that limits their own choices. There is a section of the legislation currently in the Congress that requires elderly people to consult with doctors about their options near the end. And I think Sarah Palin and, you know, exaggerates that interest.

NEARY: Right. We discussed that on the show earlier today, yeah.

Prof. ELLIS: And so things are - so that it's a worry and a concern about a new kind of health care system in which you might have something to lose. And especially among the elderly, they feel that they're the most vulnerable.

NEARY: We are talking with Joseph Ellis, professor of history at Mount Holyoke College. We're talking about an op-ed he wrote about the historical roots of American attitudes toward government, those roots in - characterized by Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. What do you - how do you regard government? Do you think of it as them or as us? Give us a call. The number is 800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org.

And let's go now to Todd(ph) who is calling from Hudsonville, Michigan. Hi, Todd.

TODD (Caller): Hi. This is Todd. I appreciate your taking my call. I'm wondering - I'm sort of a recovering libertarian. But I'm wondering why nobody is raising a pragmatic argument that with the rest of the developing world having government involvement in health care, that we're actually not competing - not competitive with them?

Prof. ELLIS: I hear that. I mean, American corporations and businesses have a real albatross because they have to cover their employees or at least they are under tremendous pressure to do so. And it's one of the reasons that the American - it's not the only reason, but one of the reasons the American automobile industry has a tough time competing with Japan. It's also one of the reasons why major, you know, the American Medical Association as well as some of the business representatives are in favor of a single-payer plan.

And so the - I think that the debates in these town meetings and the debates in Congress are being driven by partisans - in Congress, by the insurance industry and the pharmaceutical industry. And I would really love to see a kind of poll on what ordinary Americans really feel about their current system and a change of it. It seems pretty clear that the current system in unsustainable, that it takes 17 percent of our gross national product. The French plan, which is ranked first on the planet, takes 6 percent. And we simply cannot be economically competitive if we sustain this system.

TODD: Right.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for your call, Todd. And let me just remind you that you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And I just want to clarify something. I believe, Professor Ellis, you may have said that elderly people are required to meet with their doctor about end-of-life…

Prof. ELLIS: Maybe it's only advisory.

NEARY: It's not a requirement.

Prof. ELLIS: Okay.

NEARY: We want to make that very clear: It's not a requirement.

Prof. ELLIS: Right.

NEARY: We have an email here from Mark(ph) in Kalamazoo, Michigan: Wasn't Jefferson also quite concerned about the influence of business - seems like as the power of the banks and corporations grew, it was natural for government to expand to balance this out?

Prof. ELLIS: Jefferson was opposed to the national bank, set up by Hamilton. And later Andrew Jackson, a Jefferson protege, killed the bank. When he killed it, it produced a major recession and a, you know, financial chaos. But Jefferson was consistent in opposing any kind of consolidated government power and he saw the bank as one such thing. He would have - be opposed to the Federal Reserve in that sense. So regulation of any sort was anathema to him, but he also said once the American society moves out of its agrarian conditions, he doesn't think his principles will obtain anymore, and that each generation needs to rediscover its own position on this core issue. Each generation is sovereign in his view. And so that's a long ways back there and it's tough to know exactly what Jefferson would think if he was put into a 21st century context.

NEARY: All right, let's take a call from Harrison(ph), who's calling from Holbrook, New York. Hi, Harrison.

HARRISON (Caller): Hi. How's it going today?

NEARY: Good, thanks.

HARRISON: I've got to say you're doing a great job taking over the reins while he's on vacation.

NEARY: Thank you very much.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HARRISON: So I'm a bit of a political junkie myself. I would say that I was leaning a little bit more towards libertarian side if you made me choose. But speaking as somebody who tries to be extremely nonpartisan in his viewpoints, I have a massive problem with, like, for example, the Federal Reserve, which -anyone can Google it and find out that the Federal Reserve really is, you know, an independent, non-governmental, you know, body that regulates and controls the money system, which is a very anti-Jeffersonian, anti-Jacksonian idea.

And speaking as someone who believes in the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian ideal, I think the way the government works now, little too us. I'm a them person. I believe that every single person, regardless of who they are, should have at least a say, which is why I think that the Internet is such a great thing that we can use something like that to get everybody hooked up to the government, to get everybody to start looking at what legislation is, to look at the fine print. Because, I mean, you know, I'm - again, I'm not a partisan person. I'm not an anti-Republican. I'm not an anti-Democrat. But if you look at some of the stuff that got passed by Bush and some of the stuff that's getting passed by Obama and you look at the fine print, it's terrible for the American people, and especially with the people that back him in Wall Street - infowars.com.

NEARY: So you think the government has gotten too big and…

HARRISON: Not even too big because the size of the government, in and of itself, isn't a issue. It's - the quote I rely upon is power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The more power you give to people that are disconnected from the main of society, the less helpful and beneficial government is going to be for the American people. So I would think that if Obama was very serious about letting the American people read legislation before it gets passed, then he wouldn't have rushed a bill through Congress, he wouldn't be pushing those through Congress right now, trying to force it through before they go on summer break. And I think if all of the American people got a chance to look at legislation before it hit the streets, there would be a lot - the government would be much more different, in my honest opinion.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for your call, Harrison.

HARRISON: Thank you so much.

NEARY: Professor Ellis, want to respond to anything Harrison had to say there?

Prof. ELLIS: The caller reflects a deep impulse in American history, as I've said, and goes way back. And I think what we've discovered, historic -conservatives and libertarians have opposed each of the major changes in the 20th century. They opposed the Federal Reserve. They opposed Social Security. They opposed banking legislation. The Wall Street Journal said the Glass-Steagall Act would represent the end of Western civilization. They opposed desegregation and Civil Rights Act. They opposed the Environmental Protection Agency. They opposed Medicare and Medicaid. And so that's a consistent position, and I would just simply look back at that record and say if we want to continue it.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for joining us today, Professor Ellis.

Prof. ELLIS: It's my pleasure.

NEARY: Joseph Ellis teaches history at Mount Holyoke College. His most recent book is titled "American Creation." And you can find a link to his op-ed, "Them Versus Us" at our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

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