The US Capitol Building. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Contrary to what we hear from Republicans, America did not lose its way in the past few years. It lost its way a generation ago when it abandoned its faith in government.
Conventional wisdom has it that come November the 2012 presidential election will be determined by the state of the economy. Actually, the real battle will be over a much older fundamental ideological issue in American politics: what role government should play in shaping our future. This special issue of The Nation is dedicated to bringing the debate about government front and center as the presidential race heats up.
Anti-government ideologues are on a tear, passionately advocating austerity and smaller government as the cure for the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Apparently following the dictum that you should never let a crisis go to waste, they are spinning the recession to promote their pet causes, such as destroying “Obamacare” and weakening public sector unions. As a result, the stakes this November are higher than in any election since Ronald Reagan unseated Jimmy Carter in 1980.
Although the modern anti-government movement goes back to the tax revolts of the 1970s, the latest wave started with the capture of the GOP by evangelicals, the Tea Party and Grover Norquist’s anti-taxers. In 2010 they helped elect a group of far-right-wing members of Congress dedicated to breaking government’s back. Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum now propose budgets that would cut taxes sharply for the rich, decimate our most basic social programs and leave no room for significant investment in the future.
There are several strands in the anti-government movement. Among the GOP presidential candidates, Ron Paul (who persists despite having no chance of being nominated) is the classic libertarian who wants lower taxes and fewer military interventions, and who distrusts big business. At the other end of the spectrum, Romney boasts of America’s military might and declares that freeing Wall Street and corporate America from government shackles would reinvigorate the economy. Santorum carves out a faux-populist niche, pandering to the working class on social issues like abortion, gay marriage and contraception, which he presumes they care most about. But the candidates’ variegated views converge in a single imperative: to sharply cut the size of government by reducing or eliminating social programs for the middle class and the poor while lowering taxes for the rich.
Anti-government crusaders play on exaggerated fears about the deficit to justify their plans for deep cuts in America’s two basic entitlement programs, Social Security and Medicare. They’re against using government to address the nation’s growing inadequacies in infrastructure, energy technologies and education. They regard record-high income inequality and long-term economic stagnation as acceptable byproducts of the free market. They say the broken jobs machine will fix itself if business and the well-off can get tax breaks. They would repeal the new, though inadequate, Dodd-Frank financial regulations intended to stop Wall Street recklessness. And they would jeopardize longstanding social guarantees, from affirmative action to women’s healthcare, through Congress and the courts.
Persuading Americans to believe in government again may be an uphill battle, however. Conservatives have successfully demonized it as “they the bureaucrats” rather than “we the people.” As a result, nearly half of those who receive Social Security deny that they benefit from any federal programs. States where citizens get the most federal dollars are the most conservative.
Republicans routinely cite record deficits as proof of government failure. In a supposed show of principle, they were willing to shut down the government last spring rather than extend debt limits. Many insist that government must deprive women of a right to choose and must allow prayer in school, even if many parents and schoolchildren do not practice a religion.