On the one hand, Americans don’t want ‘big government’ meddling in their lives; on the other, they have repeatedly enlisted governmental help to impose their views regarding marriage, abortion, religion and schooling on their neighbours. These contradictory stances on the role of public power have paralysed policymaking and generated rancorous disputes about government’s legitimate scope. How did America reach this political impasse? And what happens now? Gerstle is Paul Mellon Professor of American History at the University of Cambridge.