Here’s the American bargain: less for more. Less from the government, in exchange for more of yourself. More privacy, more speech, more ability to move wherever you might want to go, and to associate with whomever you like.
Less in the ways that remain a fundamental source of critiques of American government: less material support (including less physical care), less in the way of direction and decisions on complicated problems.
Less for more. That’s the fundamental bargain, as it’s been construed since Roe v. Wade and the Reagan Revolution. This might not be the whole story, these things might be in tension constantly, but America as a frontier–big city mindset is the idea.
By design or neglect, the government won’t settle affairs, so a person has to, and from there, the baseline expectation of autonomy, agency and anonymity flows. The more complex a problem is, the more intimate it is, the more Americans tend to resist and distrust the idea of governmental intrusion and authority. Even if it’s not true for all, the premise holds: that a person can be in one part of this big country, get into a car and get away.
The proof of the existence of this bargain is the way people talk about prospective trades: Would you give up this for that? Would you take that kind of tax in exchange for this? Better outcomes in a pandemic in exchange for South Korean-style geolocation tracking? More abortion restrictions in exchange for a European-style safety net? Those kinds of trades also suggest how fragile and uneasy is the contract between citizen and state, an equation that citizens might want to change sometimes, or an equation at risk of being changed without our explicit consent.
But the table feels like it’s tilting like that in the 21st century, the bargain rebalancing in unpredictable ways, even when unwanted by the public. What followed the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade last summer serves as one data point in this larger reconsideration. On a technical level, the question of abortion was referred back to the states. But the manner of the changes to American law — discordant, confusing, sudden — has scrambled expectations for how remote and consistent the U.S. government should be.
Acts that were legal 12 months ago no longer are in certain states. Governors who sign laws that reverse older laws sometimes stay quiet; Republican presidential candidates remain vague about what policy should look like. People in Kansas voted down a constitutional amendment that would say there was no right to abortion, and people in Michigan voted to put abortion rights in their Constitution, so lawmakers in Ohio are trying to change their constitutional amendment process.
Absent a full abortion ban, doctors, pharmacists and hospitals shy away from certain procedures in the event they might be considered illegal, throwing people in complex circumstances into hazy suspense. Occasionally, in grim stories about rare pregnancy complications, people express the concern that, actually, they cannot get in the car and drive elsewhere to secure an abortion in a state where it’s legal. “The thing that scared us [was] we didn’t know if we’d go to jail. We didn’t know if we’d be fined,” a Florida woman told CNN. There aren’t laws against interstate travel for adults looking to securean abortion, not in Florida, but something’s changed when that hesitation enters the equation.
Discomfort with abortion itself doesn’t rule out discomfort with a lightning rearrangement of expectations, either. The government is suddenly in a place, or threatening to be in a place, where many people did not expect it to be, intervening in what were recently private decisions, cutting in on an unpredictable basis. “Every single woman [who] has been in a relationship has experienced the ‘being late’ moment,” an Arizona Republican strategist told Politico last year. “Every woman can relate to that, but it’s an intangible that’s hard to explain to men.” That story detailed a Republican-led focus group with women voters in Arizona afterthe midterms. “It’s about control,” offered one independent voter. A Republican participant said, “If they are demanding control here, where does it end?”
The Dobbs decision coincided with a re-embrace of state power across both left and right — a reconsideration of the bargain. There’s a sense, broadly, of American complication and stasis at total scale, that things are kind of too messed up and dense for incremental changes. That’s clear in the rise of the new left, and the return toward European-style visions of health care and industrial policy, along with calls for more enforcement and pressure on the private sector around wages and climate change.
On the right, a wave of intellectuals and politicians have called for conservatives to “unapologetically embrace” the use of state power, including (for some) a more populist, family-oriented welfare state. The animating idea of the right in the 2020s tends to be that society’s crises demand a response beyond the limits of traditional conservatism, which comes through in the way Donald Trump talks about “retribution” and Ron DeSantis promises a “Leviathan” to clear out the administrative state. And as much as a contingency of anti-abortion conservatives wants the government to expand maternal care and family assistance, little of that has happened so far. Instead, the edge of crisis and battle that’s been attached to government power permeates politics.
The contours of the bargain between the governed and the government had been changing anyway. The central change to everyday life of the last two decades — phones and the social internet — obliterated distance between people and places. For all the good in that, there’s a paranoid vision of it too. The phone can become a weapon against the individual, who couldn’t look something up, couldn’t talk about something the way they normally would, couldn’t go somewhere without some app’s location services capturing that movement, couldn’t control what people text them, couldn’t stop the ads following them, couldn’t claw back the information already out there, couldn’t undo what they’ve searched, said and done.
It’s overwhelming to think that way, about a phone or the law unexpectedly intruding in a moment of crisis or deep grief. But things are changing, with sometimes chaotic intersections of broad laws and personal circumstances. There’s a lot to say about the limits and failings of American government, and the way it’s been in the past, but one thing that can be said for a less-for-more view of American government, is that it created the space for privacy, pluralism and the complexity of being an individual.
Katherine Miller is a staff writer and editor in Opinion.
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