The use of government enforcement as an alternative or adjunct to the voluntary conformance of people to society’s values has long been a point of contention. On one side of the spectrum is communism, while the other side is anarchy (or, if there is a government remaining, fascism).
In the United States, the primary political parties are largely defined by the debate over the role and size of government. Until recently, Republicans could be expected to resist an increased role of government in individual lives, while Democrats insisted on more regulation. Under the Bush administration, the parties appear to have undergone a sort of “pole reversal,” with Republicans pushing for larger and more intrusive government, and Democrats advocating less.
People who feel threatened and personally impotent will tend to yield their personal power to others who seem capable of dealing with what threatens them. To the extent that a threat requires large scale coordinated action, government has traditionally filled the role of protector. We can therefore expect that when a large threat is perceived by people, government will grow, and when people feel safe, government will shrink.
I discussed earlier how a large part of a population will react to stress by increasing the predictability of the people around them. A natural reaction to a threat by other people is to remove (if not change) the people responsible for the threat, along with anyone else who might coincidentally be contributing to the stress. Those who have a low tolerance for variability of people in their environment will tend to overreact to such threats, vigorously enforcing conformity on everyone around them; and the more powerful they are, the more people they will try to change (or exterminate, if change is too difficult).
The observed “pole shift” in the positions of our political parties regarding the role and size of government may therefore be understood as a strong reaction to stress as experienced by Republicans. Democrats haven’t changed their position much, but may be reacting to a different kind of stress, imposed by the attempted reduction in diversity by Republicans.
On the surface, the stress-triggering threat is international terrorism. There is, however, growing evidence that international terrorism may be a reaction to the much larger problem of people maintaining individuality, privacy, and access to resources in an increasingly interconnected world.