They're coming. The mom from North Carolina who opposes vaccinations and dislikes doctors and chooses to forgo health coverage because, she says, it is her right as an American. The Massachusetts Navy vet who feels health reform in his state has limited choice and ballooned costs. The husband-and-wife private investigators from Georgia who are satisfied with their own health plan and fear being forced to buy something more expensive.
They're coming, along with so many others, to Washington, D.C., this month. They will stand a few blocks from the U.S. Supreme Court, clutching handmade signs and chanting as one as the high court prepares to hear arguments — and renew debate — over a health care law that has divided Americans and become a rallying point among a chunk of the electorate for whom "change" has come to mean "repeal."
"Obamacare" unites them. But what inspires them to converge in protest is less the law itself than what it has come to represent to a lot of people: Big government at its worst.
"It is the epitome of being in my face and telling me what I can and can't do for the rest of my life," says Christine Gates, the North Carolina mom.
"What's next? They gonna tell you you can't wear a black T-shirt?" says Carlos Hernandez, the Massachusetts veteran.
"With Bush is when I became more and more aware of the fact that government was spending more and requiring more ... when Obama took over, it went from second or third gear to fifth or sixth gear," says Michael Mancha, the private investigator in Georgia. His wife, Elizabeth, feels the health care law "truly exemplifies how out of control the federal government has gotten. It's the big trophy on the mantle."
These are more than just rants from the anti-Obama crowd, but rather a sampling of the national conversation underlying so much of the angst among voters this election year — from Occupy protesters who rail not just against Wall Street but for the idea that "we don't need politicians to build a better society" to tea partiers who carry pocket copies of the Constitution and espouse the principle of "constitutionally limited government."
Americans, Republicans and Democrats alike, are asking some fundamental questions about the state of the union that go beyond how to grow the economy, add jobs, lower fuel prices and curb foreclosures.
Among the most profound: What is — and perhaps should be — the role of government in our lives?
That many Americans believe government, the federal government in particular, has grown too big and powerful is hardly an earth-shattering revelation. It is one of the very reasons the tea party was born. Why debates over bailouts, stimulus packages and the national deficit have intensified. Why state legislatures are pushing back against congressional regulations. Why the champion of libertarianism, GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul, draws dedicated followers who cheer his proposals to end the Federal Reserve, repeal the federal income tax and abolish the Internal Revenue Service (along with the federal departments of Commerce, Education, Energy and more). And why more than two dozen states sued over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
A December Gallup poll showed Americans' fear of big government has reached near-record levels, with 64 percent deeming it a bigger threat to the country than big business or big labor. Driving the increase was a rise in the percentage of Democrats who view the government as ever-more threatening.
"I think more and more people across the political spectrum are saying, 'Whoa. We don't want these people having this kind of power,'" says Michael Boldin, executive director of the Tenth Amendment Center, a think-tank that supports limited government. "'Obamacare' is the symbol for conservatives. Things like the NDAA" — the National Defense Authorization Act, which was signed into law in December and could allow for the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens suspected of terrorism — "are now becoming a symbol across the political spectrum."
"The way we see it is no matter what political party's been in power for probably a hundred years now ... government keeps growing. And people can protest, vote the bums out, or sue in court. It keeps happening."
And now the anti-big-government mantra has become a dominant theme on the Republican campaign trail, with the health care law fomenting much of the furor.
"Are we a great country because we have a great and powerful federal government?" Republican candidate Rick Santorum asked the crowd at a Lincoln Day lunch in Arizona.
"Noooooo!" the audience shouted in response.
"Are we a great country because we have free people that will go out and pursue their dreams and build a great and just society from the bottom up?"
"That's really the question in this campaign ..."
In some ways it is, especially for conservative Americans who embrace the low-tax, limited-regulation, free-market principles of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.
The statistics alone are enough to fuel the fire. Prior to the Great Depression, with the exception of times of war, the federal budget was either in surplus or close to balanced, according to the U.S. Office of Budget and Management. Then came the 1929 stock market crash, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal reforms to get Americans back to work — and a rising tide of federal spending, government expansion and budget deficits.
In 1930, federal spending was 3.4 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product. By 1941, with the nation on the cusp of World War II, it was 12 percent. Today — after still more wars, economic crises, growth in government entitlement programs such as Medicaid and Medicare, savings and loan troubles, bailouts, decreased revenues, tax cuts and more — federal spending is 24 percent of GDP, our national debt is $15 trillion and we face yearly federal budget deficits in the $1 trillion range.
This didn't just happen in a vacuum; government grows for a reason, and the United States is hardly alone among rich nations sporting big bureaucracies. Think back over the 20th century: Postwar growth spurred demand for roads and services; scientific advancements brought about new agencies and bigger investments (consider the "space race"); defense spending increased during times of war; the 9/11 attacks brought on more spending for counterterrorism and training of first responders as well as new agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration.
Health care reform was a response to the fact that more than 50 million Americans lack health insurance — and that their care in clinics and emergency rooms costs nearly $75 billion a year. The Obama administration's signature achievement would ensure that all receive medical insurance; the flip side is that the government says all MUST have medical insurance or pay a penalty.
Add to the mix the residue of the financial crisis — the bank and auto industry bailouts, the stimulus bills that contributed to a burgeoning federal debt — and the result is anger on both sides of the political spectrum.
But the issue has as much to do with emotion as it does economics. The "big government" debate challenges some of our most intrinsic beliefs as Americans, the very values on which the nation was founded: freedom, liberty, the right to live our lives as we see fit in the pursuit of happiness.
When asked what matters most to them this election year (aside from defeating President Barack Obama), Republican voters often respond with answers that have nothing to do with the economy or jobs or housing or, even, debt and deficits. Rather, they begin talking about a loss of independence, a sense of powerlessness and mistrust, a feeling that government is simply too much in their business.
They refer to recent news reports about North Carolina schoolchildren who were made to eat cafeteria meals after a teacher decided their home-packed lunches failed to meet federal dietary guidelines required for government-funded school lunch programs.
"It's that outlook on things that is just so wrong. Like we can't run our own lives," says Margaret Birkemo, a missionary from Fountain Hills, Ariz.
Or they condemn the controversial "light bulb law," setting new energy-saving standards that would have meant an eventual end to old-style 100-watt bulbs in favor of those newfangled fluorescents. After a Republican-led fight last year to overturn the standards entirely, a deal was instead reached to delay enforcement until October. (In fact, the law including the new standards was signed by Republican George W. Bush.)
"I'm hoarding those old light bulbs," says Gates, who serves as president of her tea party group in Lenoir, N.C. "I don't want any of those little curlicue ... things in my house. Uh-uh."
Or they paraphrase the conservative champion of limited government.
"I think it's Reagan that said government's not the answer to your problem, it is your problem," says Don Graves, a school bus driver in Chandler, Ariz. "You need to always worry when they say the government's going to take care of you. It's not the government's job. Yet that's what we've evolved to, and more so over the last three years than in the 200 years prior combined. That's the way I see it."
Historian Ballard Campbell, author of a book called "The Growth of American Government," sees all of this mostly as recycled, election-year propaganda intended to rally the Republican base. A presidential election "kicks up a lot dust on issues that intersect with the growth of government," he says. "It's an old song that I've heard over and over again."
David Ropeik puts it another way: "America is juiced about government butting out."
Ropeik, author of the book "How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts," is a Harvard instructor and an expert in risk perception who has examined the concerns over big government. He and Campbell agree that the debate has little to do with the actual size of government but rather is a manifestation of something deeper in the human spirit: the anxiety that comes with scary times brought on by a bad economy, concerns over terrorism, the widening gap between rich and poor, congressional gridlock and so on.
"There's something about these times that feels more threatening because people feel less control over their lives," says Ropeik. "That triggers an afraidness inside that brings all of this to the fore."
These feelings also closely parallel Americans' overall degree of trust in elected leaders. Consider that Congress ended 2011 with its lowest approval rating since Gallup started polling on the subject in 1974. It was during that decade that the anti-big-government axiom really gained steam, says Jeff Madrick, a former financial columnist for The New York Times whose book "The Case for Big Government" argues the more optimistic view of government playing a vital role in society.
In the '70s, he says, "we had very high inflation and very high unemployment simultaneously, and everybody lost confidence in government's ability to manage the economy. Things turned, and they never really turned back. Even (Democrat) Bill Clinton ... announced in a State of the Union address that it was the end of the era of big government. ... Ideologically, more and more people advocated this point of view."
Now, argues Madrick, the "big government" crusade has been hijacked and exploited by those who, on the one hand, oppose government mandates that contraception be covered by health insurers, but on the other want more government regulation of abortion.
"It's kind of schizophrenic. Government is so demonized and objectified that people don't realize how much they benefit from it," he says. "It's very irrational what's going on."
Yet even Madrick acknowledges the importance of all of this as Americans choose the next president. "This election will determine the role of government in America," he says.
This is why the throngs will head to Washington this month, with Christine Gates, Carlos Hernandez and the Manchas among them. And why amid the signs warning "Beware Obamacare" you'll see just as many that don't mention health care at all. Gates dusted off her own posters this week in preparation for the bus ride north. They read: "It's the Constitution Stupid!" and "No More Spending" and "Bankrupting America one unread bill at a time!"
They would tell you, these voters, that they aren't so zealous as to expect — or even want — some radical obliteration of government as we know it today (although many Americans, including some of Paul's supporters, do). Increase efficiency, they say. Eliminate redundancy. Reduce regulation.
As Gates says: "The Department of Agriculture does a lot of the same things the FDA does, but I don't think we should get rid of the entire FDA." Even when it comes to the oft-lambasted Environmental Protection Agency, "I understand clean air and clean water. Of course I want those things.
"No," she says, "I don't need everything eliminated. I certainly don't want to live in anarchy. But can you show me a big, efficient government?
Her conclusion: "They're mutually exclusive."
Pauline Arrillaga, a Phoenix-based national writer for The Associated Press, can be reached at features(at)ap.org.