Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry and this is The Takeaway. Republican primary candidates endorsed by President Trump are having a very good week, claiming victory in all 22 of their contests in Ohio and Indiana. One way to interpret these wins is as the culmination of a multi-decade strategy by the Republican Party to frame government itself as the source of our problems. Here's President Reagan at his first inauguration in 1981.
President Reagan: In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Conservative activist, Grover Norquist, in a 2001 interview on NPR's Morning Edition.
Grover Norquist: I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I could drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Why has this strategy been so effective? Suzanne Mettler, a professor of government at Cornell University finds an answer to what she describes as the Submerged State. No, this is not the deep state that fuels current Republican discourse, the submerged state refers to all the beneficial programs, processes and policies that affect our lives but also tend to remain hidden.
Quick example, ask most middle-income Americans to name a large expensive government housing program and they're likely to say Public Housing or Section 8. Neither of these public efforts to assist the poor are anywhere close to what is truly the largest and most expensive government housing policy, the mortgage interest deduction for homeowners.
Back in 2015, the mortgage interest deduction cost the federal government $71 billion, whereas Section 8 came in at just under 30 billion. Most high-income homeowners, they don't even think of themselves as benefiting from a massive government program, even though they do.
Professor Mettler's book, The Submerged State: How Invisible Government Policies Undermine American Democracy argues that this inability to see the work of government in our lives is a big part of why Americans think government is the problem. Rather than drowning the state in the bathtub, she suggests we need to surface it.
Suzanne Mettler: When I wrote this book, which is now some years ago, what I was talking about was invisible government policies that lots of Americans use but that people aren't that aware of because of their policy design. These are policies where people receive a lot of resources, thanks to government, but they don't just get a check in the mail or deposited into their bank account. Instead, the way it works is that there are subsidies that allow us to get healthcare, for example, through our employer-provided healthcare benefits.
Government actually allows us to get those benefits untaxed different than if that same amount was paid to us as income, but people don't really think about that as the government benefit, even though it's actually a very expensive program for the government to have. The home mortgage interest deduction is another example of various, these policies in the tax code. A lot of them really benefit high-income people the most, but we really take them for granted and don't think about government having a role in making us better off through these policies.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's dig in on one of those in particular, which is the mortgage interest tax deduction, which is the single largest public housing program in the US, right?
Suzanne Mettler: Yes, that's right. It's such a popular program and people think of it as the program that enables middle-class Americans to afford homes but, in fact, that's really not the case. Most of the benefit goes to the people who have very high incomes, and very expensive homes, not to the rest of us. For most Americans, it actually makes more sense to take the standard deduction, so they're not even using the home mortgage interest deduction.
It's a big housing program. Just like if we have programs that are for poor people, they tend to be much more direct visible programs, where people are benefiting from government and Americans have all sorts of attitudes about policies like that. These very expensive programs like the home mortgage interest deduction, we don't think of in the same way.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Then what happens when we don't acknowledge or recognize ourselves as people who are receiving important government benefits?
Suzanne Mettler: Well, we've been in this long period of time now for a few decades where government gets a really bad rap. In the middle of the 20th century, most Americans had very positive views about the federal government generally, and people felt that public officials were responsive to people like them. Over the last several decades, Americans' attitudes about government have become worse and worse and worse. Today, it's less than one in five Americans will say that they trust the federal government in Washington, and on all of these measures, very bad attitudes.
That's problematic because it means that when we're in a real crisis, we're unable to come together and really support government to work on problems. Government is most able to do that, but Americans' attitudes about government are just so problematic these days.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I think here of during the passage of the Affordable Care Act, and there were folks holding up the signs that said, "Government Hands-Off My Medicare," and it was like, "Ah, yes, maybe you don't know how that works."
Suzanne Mettler: Yes, exactly. Well, it made it very difficult to enact that law, and then it finally got enacted. One thing I should note is that these invisible government programs are very visible to the industries and interest groups that really benefit from them. They will lobby very hard to have their interest represented and that was the case through the very fraught enactment of the Affordable Care Act but it got enacted, and what's interesting-- I should say that besides invisible government policies, there are other things that make government's role in our lives less visible to us. One of those things is partisanship these days. We're so polarized.
After the Affordable Care Act was created, Democrats who had supported its passage had very favorable views toward it. For several years, Republicans had very negative views toward it overall, but an interesting thing happened when Republicans kept running on the idea they were going to repeal it. They finally, in 2016, through those elections, they gained the political power to repeal it. No sooner did they actually have the levers of power, then Americans who had been saying they were opposed to it actually were jolted into realizing that they appreciated these benefits, and people's views changed.
People who had long been unaware of it, a lot of low-income people who were benefiting from it, moved to have more favorable views as did Republicans who had been opposed to it became less opposed, more supportive. Actually, in the 2018 election, that became very apparent as Americans shifted toward voting for Republicans in 2016 to voting for Democrats for Congress in 2018. It did not get repealed ultimately, it got weakened for a few years, but during the Biden administration, it's now been strengthened again. It's slowly and gradually becoming actually a popular law, and we're visible to people as they realize what its benefits are doing for them.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm also wondering about the elected officials. Isn't it in their fundamental self-interest, presuming that all elected officials are single-minded secrets of reelection, isn't it fundamentally in their self-interest not to submerge the state to have visible your tax dollars at work so that you know what they're doing to help you out?
Suzanne Mettler: That is such a good question. [chuckles] We would assume, given democratic theory, that that's how it works. That we elect public officials because we want them to do certain things like enact particular policies, and then if they do, we reward them in the next election, and that's how accountability works, that's basically how democracy works.
Things have gotten really complicated in the United States in that we have these strong anti-government attitudes. What tends to happen is if Americans' attention is being directed to these broad principles, like the size of government or taxes, Americans will act like what we call philosophical conservatives. They'll act like, "We just want small government, we don't want these public policies, we want low taxes, et cetera."
Republicans tend to run on those kinds of messages and to do so successfully when they are able to promote them. By contrast, when Americans' attention is directed to specific public policies that benefit them, they really like those policies. Americans like those policies regardless of what their ideology and partisanship is, most people like the policies that we have. Democrats when they emphasize what policy contributions are being made and what they've achieved, et cetera, and what difference policies make in people's lives, they tend to do well.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Thinking of President Reagan saying government doesn't solve the problems, government is the problem, is there a way to turn around the problem of the submerged state so that people can see what the policies are and then make a decision as to whether or not they like them?
Suzanne Mettler: Right. That's something I'm thinking about all the time. I do think it helps to, for one thing, talk about the policies and promote them. It's really interesting how we expect businesses to make it clear to people what they do for them and to really advertise and promote their products, but we don't expect government to do that, and so government does so much all the time. I mean, it's just gotten us through-- well, we're still enduring a lot of the effects of the pandemic, but government has played a very successful role in the last couple of years, getting us through the pandemic, keeping the recession much shorter than it would've been otherwise and actually reducing child poverty during the pandemic and all kinds of other effects, but we don't hear that much about it.
Some of it is lost in the din of partisan discourse, but I do think we need to find ways to more clearly make it evident what government is doing. If you visit any national park where there are lodges that were built during the Great Depression through programs like the Works Progress Administration, we're still aware of that because there's a plaque out front of places like that, but we don't tend to do that kind of thing today. That's one thing we can do.
I do think that when Americans pay their taxes, it would help if they received a taxpayer receipt that made it clear to them what benefits they received through the tax code. It's actually very complex to figure out what benefits you're getting when you do your taxes. I always think about this when I do my family's taxes. Just making that dollar amount more clear to people I think would be helpful. Then I also think that we need to try to change this discourse away from the general antigovernment discourse to focusing on more specific concrete things that government does.
Melissa Harris-Perry: The example that you gave of the ACA was, in certain ways, the implementation of a policy which then becomes more popular over time. I'm wondering if there is an example of a submerged policy or benefit that became more visible, and then went either way, that people were like, "Oh, if I know that's coming from the government, I don't want it," or potentially became more warmly attached to it.
Suzanne Mettler: Well, one thing that happened that was very interesting in the past year was the expansion of the child tax credit that was part of the American Recovery Act and really reduced child poverty dramatically during 2021, but, sadly, it has not been renewed. The hope was for it to become part of the Build Back Better bill and then that has not been enacted.
I think, suddenly, people were getting a lot more money and these are a lot of low-income people with children were receiving more money than they had previously and they were seeing it, it was visible, they were appreciating it. Then it's gone away, which is even worse because now people had come to rely on those funds and they're not available.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Very last question. Let's say that President Biden's advisors are listening to The Takeaway as I'm sure they do every day, what should they be saying to the President, to the administration right now based on what you know and have written about and have observed around this submerged state?
Suzanne Mettler: Well, one of the things that's been interesting about their big achievements so far both with the American Recovery Act and with the infrastructure bill is that a lot of the funds go to state and local governments. While that's different than the kind of submerged policy designs that I'm talking about, it also makes it a little bit more complex for Americans to see what government is doing, because if you drive down a road and it's being repaired, you really don't know who you should be thankful to. Should you be thankful to President Biden or to your state and local officials, et cetera? That's complex.
I think that working on trying to get the word out about what state and local governments are doing with all of those funds would be really helpful, spotlighting those constantly would be helpful.
I also think that they have a lot of policy goals in mind that would make government more visible and they had hoped to have them part of the big Build Back Better law. I'm hoping that some of these could be enacted in separate pieces of legislation going forward because they're all things that Americans really appreciate and tell pollsters they would like to see done, and so I hope that can happen.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Professor Mettler, thank you so much for joining us on The Takeaway.
Suzanne Mettler: Oh, that's been a pleasure. Thank you, Melissa.
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