The recent news out of Washington tells of an epic disaster of government. Across the world America looks like a dysfunctional society. But that’s the wrong way to see the collapse of our democracy’s ability to function as a political system. The real story is that a Republican Party strategy initiated decades ago has been crowned with success.
During most of the 20th century, the two parties vied to use American government to promote their differing political philosophies. Democrats were more activist in their domestic policy choices than Republicans, but there was fundamental agreement about the importance of governing.
The Presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon represent this basic consensus between the parties. Johnson’s Great Society programs to attack the social and economic legacy of discrimination and poverty were an obvious expression of Democratic Party beliefs about the proper role of government. Nixon used government to fight inflation with wage and price controls, to enforce desegregation of Southern schools, and to create the Environmental Protection Agency.
Ronald Reagan’s Presidency demonstrated a major shift in Republican philosophy. In his 1981 Inaugural Address, Reagan said, “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” He specifically targeted the national debt as “out of control”.
During the turbulent 1960s, conservatives had jumped on any American who criticized our government as a traitor: “Love it or leave it.” In the 1980s Republicans began to claim that real patriots should criticize the idea of government itself.
Reagan’s revolution in Republican public ideology was not a significant departure from traditional party policies. He continued the long history of Republican opposition to government regulation of business and to the use of social programs to deal with economic inequality. Under the label of the New Federalism, Reagan appointed administrators who tried to dismantle major government agencies: Anne Gorsuch at the Environmental Protection Agency and James Watt at the Department of the Interior.
The Reagan “revolution” was more verbal than real. Over his presidency, he tripled the national debt, signed the largest corporate tax increase in history, and expanded the number of federal employees by 60,000. But he bequeathed to Republicans a new political mantra that they have been repeating ever since.
Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” led Congressional Republicans to use a shutdown of the federal government in 1995 to try to put their economic policies into effect. Gingrich’s failure did little to change the Republican message. George Bush never tired of repeating how important it was to reduce government, even as he presided over an unprecedented increase in government spending and in our national debt. The elections of 2010 were an remarkable display of Republicans trying to get into government by running against government.
And now in 2011 this Republican strategy has been crowned with total success. They have managed to make the US government into a laughing stock, a global symbol of incompetence. Public confidence in government is at an all-time low, according to Gallup polls.
Republican rhetorical success is American political failure. By attacking government in general without identifying specific programs or policies that are working poorly, Republicans have reduced Americans’ confidence in our collective ability to deal with national problems. All of the current Republican candidates for President repeat the anti-government mantra, but none of them offer any specific discussion of what it would mean to cut particular programs now. That is because every poll shows a majority of Americans in favor of each expensive program – Social Security, Medicare, environmental protection, Head Start.
The Republican anti-government message has confused many Americans, who want to keep the government programs, but also have come to believe that government is the problem. The Republican message has been successful in winning votes, but disastrous for governing. Over the past weeks, stockholders have lost about 3 trillion dollars, our government’s debt has been downgraded, and confidence in government has been further eroded.
No American has been harmed by the size of our national debt, but 45 million Americans need food stamps to eat. No American will have to do without their Social Security checks, but 14 million Americans are unemployed.
So who will solve our problems? The rich, whose wealth Republicans in Congress are desperately trying to protect? The corporations, whom Republicans want to free from public regulation?
Only we the people can solve our problems, and that is why our government was created. Only government represents all the people, collectively deciding what our future will be. With government hobbled, the rich will get richer, corporations will run the marketplace, and we will be “free” to watch from the sidelines.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, August 16, 2011