The Anti-Government Movement's Radical Agenda
The right’s agenda of massive tax cuts and program cutbacks is a radical one that is out of touch with the priorities of most Americans. Polls reveal surprisingly strong citizen support for government spending and public programs.
Anti-government activists like to portray their ideas as mainstream and claim to speak for the political aspirations of common Americans. They would have us believe that their vision of the minimal state is as American as apple pie – merely an extension of Americans’ traditional skepticism toward government. Americans have always disliked government, they say, and we are only following their lead. But once we get beyond this rhetoric and get a good look at the underlying ideas and goals of these anti-government zealots, it becomes clear that their views are far different from the political sentiments of most Americans. Their agenda is much more radical and their hatred of government goes way beyond the natural political cynicism that most citizens have about this institution. The anti-government movement is out of touch with mainstream America; and at its core, it is nothing less than a form of political extremism.
Out of Step with America
It is true that part of the American tradition is to distrust power and those who wield it – whether they are in government, corporations, churches, labor unions, or any large organization. This is all to the good, because power can be abused and needs to be kept in check. We need to constantly question our governmental leaders and we need to keep them accountable in order to ensure that they are responsive to our needs and that they spend our money wisely. But the views of the anti-government movement go far beyond this kind of healthy suspicion about governmental power – they actually hate government. They sometimes call it “the beast” or “the monster” – and actually consider it to be some kind of malevolent force in society. They demonize it, loathe it, and see it as the source of all of our problems.
Of course, all of us have probably said at times that we "hate" the government. But what we mean by that is usually very different from what these anti-government crusaders mean. We usually mean that we detest the particular politicians in power and/or that we hate the policies they are pursuing. So liberal Americans hate it when conservatives are in charge of government, and vice versa. In other words, we hate a particular government. But the anti-government right hates government in general – government itself. This is a very different and much more extreme view.
Similarly, these ideologues’ criticisms of government are also much more sweeping than the typical complaints about government voiced by most Americans. Consider, for example, the issue of wasteful government bureaucracies. Most of us strongly support efforts to cut the “fat” out of government bureaucracies and to make them more efficient. But for proponents of minimal government, this kind of reform is really beside the point. As one early icon of the anti-government movement, Barry Goldwater, explained it: “I have little interest in streamlining government or making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size.”1 And by “reducing,” they often mean lopping off entire agencies and programs. The conservative hit list of agencies that should be eliminated has at various times included the Department of Education, Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Commerce, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, plus hundreds of other small agencies and programs. They don’t want to cut fat; they want to cut meat.
Americans also sometimes have problems with government regulations. We can all probably identify at least a few regulations that seem particularly wrongheaded or burdensome, and we would certainly support changing or eliminating them. But many anti-government zealots condemn the legitimacy of government regulation itself. Some conservative legal scholars actually argue that the federal government has no constitutional right to regulate the workplace or the environment.2 And most libertarian-leaning conservatives would reduce regulations drastically – even those protecting our health and safety. Dick Armey, former Majority Leader of the U.S. House, seriously proposed that we eliminate half of all federal regulations. He didn’t specify which ones – he just seemed to know that half of them were unneeded. Another Republican House Leader, Tom DeLay, went Dick Armey one better and actually told a reporter that he could not think of a single federal regulation he would like to leave in place.3 Such irresponsible and extreme hostility toward consumer protection, environmental, health, and workplace regulations is clearly out of touch with mainstream America. Only a very small minority of Americans – less than 18% – say they want less government regulation of most industries.4
Some Americans also have issues with our social safety net programs, but they are usually confined to complaints about welfare payments going to people who do not really need them. In general, most Americans strongly support programs like Social Security, unemployment insurance, Medicare, and the minimum wage. However, many in the anti-government crusade want to get government out of the business of providing this kind of economic security for Americans. For example, some leading conservative intellectuals like Charles Murray don’t just want to cut back on welfare, they want to eliminate it entirely. In his famous book, Losing Ground, he proposed “scrapping” welfare, Medicaid, and food stamps and leaving the poor to be taken care of by friends, churches, and charities.5 Minimum wage and workplace anti-discrimination policies have also come under attack as improper uses of government power. Even unemployment insurance is looked upon with great suspicion by some critics of government. As Ronald Reagan, an anti-government icon, once declared: “Unemployment insurance is a pre-paid vacation for freeloaders.”6 And he did not think much better of Medicaid, whose recipients he once described as “a faceless mass, waiting for handouts.”7
George W. Bush’s attempts to “reform” Social Security also revealed a deep underlying hostility toward social programs in general. A limited-circulation memo written in January 2005 by Peter Wehner, the director of the White House Office of Strategic Initiatives, was particularly instructive in this regard. He made it clear that an essential part of the privatization plan was to actually reduce benefits and weaken Social Security, and he said that any proposal that didn’t include this was a “bad idea.” More importantly, he revealed how radical the privatization effort really was. “The overhaul of Social Security will be one of the most conservative undertakings of modern times. And if successful, will rank as one of the most significant conservative governing achievements ever.” The ultimate goal of this effort, he concluded, was to “help the nation move away from dependency on government.”8 There is a clear refusal here to realize what most Americans know to be true: that it is sometimes necessary for us to use collective institutions like government to deal with the many serious financial risks and insecurities that are part of living in a modern market economy – risks like unemployment, retirement, sudden illness, and so on.
Getting Rid of Public Schools
Remarkably, some anti-government activists are even against our public schools. For much of our history, public schools have been seen as a vital symbol of our nation’s commitment to equal opportunity for all. But in their zeal to condemn anything and everything governmental, some conservatives have set their sights on greatly reducing or even eliminating public education. As Thomas Johnson of the Future of Freedom Foundation has explained:
Famous supporters of public education include Hitler, Stalin, Castro, Mao Zedong, Mussolini …. The best possible reform that could ever be affected is eliminating completely politicized socialist government schools and replacing them with private, profit-making, and charitable education businesses that offer courses of instruction only too willing customers.9
And it's not only far-out libertarians like Johnson who express these kinds of hostile views of our public schools – these ideas extend into the mainstream of the conservative movement. Conservative luminaries including Milton Friedman, Dinesh D’Souza, Howard Phillips, and Marvin Olasky have publicly endorsed the goal of eliminating public education.10 A story told by Reed Hundt, head of the Federal Communication Commission in the Clinton administration, illustrates just how deep the conservative contempt for public schools can go. He had a meeting with William Bennett, who had been Secretary of Education under Ronald Reagan, in order to ask him to support a bill in Congress that would have paid for internet access in all classrooms and libraries in the country.
[Bennett] told me he would not help, because he did not want public schools to obtain new funding, new capability, new tools for success. He wanted them, he said, to fail so that they could be replaced with vouchers, charter schools, religious schools and other forms of private education.11
In contrast to these extremely antagonistic attitudes towards public education, most Americans support and even cherish their local public schools. In a poll, Americans ranked public schools as “the most important public institution in the community” by at least a five-to-one margin over hospitals, churches and other institutions.12 And by 69% to 27%, Americans support “reforming the existing public school system” to “finding an alternative.”13
Getting Rid of Taxes
Taxes are yet another area in which the approach of anti-government activists is much more extreme than that of most Americans. Most of us would like to get rid of taxes that seem clearly unfair – such as the marriage penalty in the federal income tax. And most would agree that changes need to be made when local property taxes become too much of a burden on retirees on a fixed income. But these anti-government conservatives and libertarians aren’t as concerned with making the tax system fairer or more reasonable as they are with simply cutting taxes. They oppose taxes in principle – seeing them as a form of theft that penalizes hard working Americans. Many also believe that severely cutting taxes is the best way to reduce government. For many in the anti-tax movement, their ultimate goal is to get rid of as many taxes as possible, including the federal income tax, capital gains taxes, corporate income taxes, payroll taxes and property taxes. One anti-government Libertarian Party web site made the point quite succinctly: “Where do we stand on taxes? The short answer is we are against them.”14
In enacting a series of massive tax cuts starting in 2001, President Bush and the Republican Congress insisted that they were simply giving the public what they wanted: tax relief. But poll after poll showed that this was not what the public wanted. Surveys at the time found that hardly any Americans thought tax cuts were an important priority and only 5% named taxes as the nation’s “most important problem.”15 And when asked if they preferred a tax cut or to spend that money on “education, the environment, health care, crime fighting, and the military,” 69% of Americans said they preferred to devote the money to these programs. Only 22% favored the tax cuts.16 Clearly, the Republican obsession with continually cutting taxes is greatly out of step the views of most Americans.
Rolling Back the Twentieth Century
To sum up, the agenda of the anti-government coalition is a radical one – they do not simply want to reform and improve government; they want to gut it. They fundamentally oppose the basic roles and functions of government in modern society. They believe the government’s power to tax, its ability to enact health, safety, and environmental regulations, and its attempts to redistribute income to provide more economic security are all basically illegitimate activities. They fundamentally oppose the modern idea of government and the role it has come to play in advanced societies. As William Greider has observed, many of the leaders of the anti-government movement feel deeply uncomfortable with the expansion of government power and programs that took place during the New Deal and the Great Society and are nostalgic about earlier times when government played only a very minor role in society.
The movement’s grand ambition is to roll back the twentieth century, quite literally. That is, defenestrate the federal government and reduce its scale and powers to a level well below what it was before the New Deal’s centralization. With that accomplished, movement conservatives envision a restored society in which the prevailing values and power relationships resemble the America that existed around 1900, when William McKinley was President. Governing authority and resources are dispersed from Washington, returned to local levels and also to individuals and private institutions, most notably corporations and religious organizations. The primacy of property rights is re-established over the shared public priorities expressed in government regulation. Above all, private wealth – both enterprises and individuals with higher incomes – are permanently insulated from the progressive claims of the graduated income tax.17
Out of Step with Other Democracies
For much of the twentieth century, most Americans welcomed the growing power of the federal government and its ability to effectively address the serious economic and social problems that people could not solve on their own. In fact, much of that growth came from public demands that the government tackle pressing issues like economic depressions, tainted food, environmental pollution, and unsafe workplaces. But while this more positive view of the state has been fading in the United States, it still remains alive and well in many European countries. The state-hating views of American conservatives seem especially strange when compared with the way most citizens in these other advanced Western countries look at government. T. R. Reid, a reporter who lived in Europe for many years, has observed with some surprise that the term "welfare state" is not a pejorative one there. They don’t say “welfare state” with that sneer in their voice that we usually hear in the States. In fact, he found that most Europeans are very proud of their welfare states and they like to brag about public programs like their universal healthcare systems.18 Typically, Europeans believe that the government should take a much greater responsibility for helping people with their lives than we do here in United States. For example, when asked, "How much responsibility does the government have for seeing to it that everyone who wants a job can have one?", an average of 91% of the citizens in Germany, Great Britain and Italy said that this was either an essential or important responsibility of the government. Ninety-five percent believed that the government had an important or essential responsibility to provide citizens with good medical care; and 89% thought that providing adequate housing was an important or essential responsibility of government.19 Such views must surely make American minimal-government crusaders cringe. Perhaps more surprising, however, is that the anti-government attitudes of American conservative leaders are not only alien to most citizens in other Western countries; they are even out of step with conservative movements in these countries. A passionate hatred of government and the desire to dismantle it is unique to U.S. conservatives. John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge work for the British magazine the Economist and have written an insightful history of conservatism in the United States, The Right Nation. One of their central points is how exceptional American conservatism is. “Most Americans still do not realize how extraordinary their brand of conservatism is. …The American Right exhibits a far deeper hostility toward the state than any other modern conservative party. How many European conservatives would display bumper stickers saying ‘I love my country but I hate my government’?”20 The answer, presumably, is very few. Because while conservatives in other countries champion the benefits of the market system and disagree with their liberal opponents over how extensive social programs should be, most do not deny the importance of these programs or that the government has a responsibility to play an active role in meeting the needs of its citizens. So the extreme government bashing that we see here is really an exclusive sport of American conservatives.
Beneath the Surface: Surprisingly Strong Support for Government
Of course, most conservative ideologues in American are hardly bothered by the fact that their movement is exceptional among Western countries in its strong distaste for government. In fact, they take pride in this. They often argue that their anti-state views merely reflect the broader “exceptionalism” of American political culture – that Americans just have a more intense dislike for the state than do citizens in other Western cultures. But this is highly misleading. In reality, the American public is very much of two minds about government: we both dislike and like government. It depends a lot on how we are asked about it. When asked about government in general, Americans usually react negatively. They say that government is inherently wasteful and incompetent, and that they have little confidence in it. The number of people who say they trust the federal government to do the right thing most of the time declined from a high of 62% in 1964 to 40% in 2000.21 And people usually rate politicians at the bottom of the list of occupations in terms of integrity and honesty – right next to used car salesmen. From this it is easy to conclude that most Americans really don’t like government at all. But questions about government in the abstract are exactly those that are likely to trigger the negative stereotypes of government that are so close to the surface in many of our minds – corrupt politicians, wasteful bureaucracies, etc. However, if we begin to probe beneath these initial, knee-jerk attitudes towards government, we begin to see something else. If we go beyond questions about government in general and begin to ask more specific questions about this institution, we get a very different reaction from most Americans. For instance, most people rate Congress quite low as an institution, but when they are asked about their own particular congressperson – who they usually know fairly well – they routinely give their own representative very high marks. More importantly, when pollsters ask Americans to think about how much responsibility government should have in specific areas like jobs, housing, and health care, you get some unexpected answers. Our answers are not as pro-government as those of the European citizens noted above, but a surprising number of us believe that government should play a large role in addressing these pressing social problems. 71% of Americans believe that the government has an important or essential responsibility for seeing to it that anyone who wants a job can have one. 63% believe that the government has an important or essential responsibility to provide citizens with adequate housing; and 78% of us think that the government has an important or essential responsibility to provide citizens with good medical care.22 These are hardly the answers of a people who want to drastically reduce government’s role in society. One social scientist, looking at the figures, commented that “Rather than a confirmation of American individualism, the results … are better understood as an indication of the surprisingly strong support for government social responsibility that exists in this land of ‘rugged individualism.’”23
We find similarly strong public support for government when we ask people whether we should be spending more money or less money on programs that care for the elderly, protect the environment, support education, etc. Large majorities actually say they like these programs and want the government to spend more money on them – not less. Table 6 shows the typical results of one of these surveys. As the results clearly demonstrate, very few people actually think the government should spend less on Social Security, crime, the environment, health, parks, education, highways, etc. The only areas where a substantial number of people want less spending are welfare (35.3%), foreign aid (55.3%), and defense (42.4%). In almost every other issue area, less than 10% of the public want to cut spending. More importantly, in every single one of these areas, a majority of Americans want the government to keep spending at least the same amount. And in the areas of the environment, health, crime, education, childcare, and Social Security, a majority thinks the government should spend more. This evidence clearly shows that while we don’t seem to like the idea of government, we do like what it does for us in reality. So the conventional wisdom about Americans uniformly hating government – the view assumed and promoted by anti-government conservatives – is in fact wrong. Most of us have enough common sense to strongly support the vital government programs that are working to improve our lives.
Table 6: Public Attitudes Toward Spending on Government Programs.
Should Spend More
Spending About Right
Should Spend Less
Protecting the environment
Protecting our health
Halting the rising crime rate
Improving the educ. system
Highways and bridges
Military, arms, and defense
Parks and recreation
Source: National Opinion Research Center, “General Social Survey Codebook 2008.” (Table does not include respondents who answered “Don’t know.”)
No Turn to the Right in Public Opinion
Another striking finding of the polls cited above is that Americans’ positive attitudes toward many key government programs have held steady for the last three decades.24 Since the 1970s, our strong support for these programs has hardly wavered at all. This comes as a surprise to many people, especially those on the right. Minimal government activists like to argue that their attempt to cut programs is simply a reaction to the public’s increasing conservatism and hostility toward government. They suggest that there has been a general turn to the right in American politics in response to the liberal excesses of the Great Society in the 1960s, and this includes an increasing public opposition to big government. But no such “right turn” has taken place. As numerous studies have shown, “there is virtually no compelling survey evidence that more Americans have actually embraced conservatism since the 1960s.”25 Surveys that ask people to position themselves on a conservative—liberal continuum have found that the number of people calling themselves “conservative” has increased by a mere 2% since the 1960s. And a study of the public’s view of left-right issues conducted by Morris Fiorina concluded that “Americans are about as conservative or liberal as they were a generation ago.”26
Polls also reveal that negatives attitudes toward government have not increased across the board during the last decades – and some have even decreased. In 1972, when asked if government was “too powerful,” 49% of Americans said yes. But that figure was down substantially in 2002 – to 39%.27 And when asked whether they wanted to cut government services or to provide more services (even if that required raising taxes), Americans were evenly divided in 1992. By 2000, however, more than twice as many wanted to increase services (39%) than wanted to cut them (18%).28
Something has turned sharply to the right in the last 30 years, but it has not been the public. It has been the conservative leadership. A generation ago, most Republican politicians were actually moderates, in the mold of Dwight Eisenhower, Nelson Rockefeller, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. Nixon was probably the most conservative of these four, but he often embraced government and expanded its powers and programs when necessary to deal with a variety of problems. He signed into law the Clean Air Act and the Environmental Protection Agency, he helped to implement Affirmative Action, and he supported passage of a national health insurance plan. More new federal regulations were adopted under Nixon than under Lyndon Johnson. And he approved the largest increases in domestic spending since the New Deal. Hardly the policy record of someone who thought that we had too much government.
But conservative leaders began to veer sharply to the right in the 1980s, as Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson have documented in their book, Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy. They show, for example, that the median Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives is now 73% more conservative than their counterpart in the 1970s. They also cite studies that examine how the political views of core Republican activists compare to those of independent voters. These studies show that in the 1960s Republican activists were only about 20% more conservative than independents, but that by 2002, they had become 40% more conservative.29 Hacker and Pierson conclude that “Republican activists are not only far to the right of independents, they are also far to the right of ordinary voters within their own party. And they have been heading ever more sharply right since the 1980s.”30
Part of this increasing gap between conservative leaders and many independent and conservative voters can be seen in their diverging attitudes towards the value of government programs. This is clearly evident in the results of the polls cited earlier on how much the public supports spending on various government policy efforts. These surveys reveal that those who oppose the conservative leadership’s agenda of cutting vital government programs are not just liberals – they include many independents and conservatives as well. Only about 20% of the electorate identify themselves as liberals; and yet the figures in Table 6 show that upwards of 90% of Americans believe we should not be cutting spending on health, education, environmental protection, and so on. This means that very large numbers of people who see themselves as moderates or independents support these government programs. And since over 30% of Americans identify themselves as conservative, clearly many of them too do not want to see cuts in these areas of government responsibility. In fact, when Republican lawmakers proposed in 2011 to cut spending on Medicare and Medicaid, polls showed that a whopping 70% of Republicans and 80% of registered Tea Party voters actually opposed those cuts – much to the shock of many conservative pundits.
But such grassroots conservative support for large government programs should not be shocking. Many conservative citizens benefit greatly from these programs. Also, it is certainly possible to be a social conservative who is strongly anti-abortion and anti-gay, and yet who also strongly supports spending on health care and environmental protection. In any case, these poll figures provide more evidence that the anti-government movement’s policy agenda of slashing funding for many big-government programs is not only at odds with the views of most Americans, it is out of touch with the views of many conservatives as well – a good indication of just how extreme this agenda really is.
An Undemocratic Movement
The anti-government movement represents a deeply disturbing development in American politics: a group of political activists imposing their radical policy agenda on a public that does not support it. There is not, and has never been, a widespread public demand to drastically reduced government in the United States. This movement has not been an example of democracy at work. It has been an example of special interest politics at work – it has been an attack on democracy. The demand for smaller government has come primarily from those wealthy individuals and powerful business interests who would most directly profit from lowered taxes and less regulation. As I describe in another article, it is these very interests that have provided the billions of dollars of support that has enabled this movement to grow in political power. The success of the anti-government movement in this country has not been the result of a shift to the right in public opinion, but the result of a shift to the right in political influence – a product of the ever-increasing power of affluent interests in our political system. But the undemocratic nature of this anti-government crusade and its lack of popular support have not discouraged it most ardent promoters.
To see exactly how the anti-government movement has been pursuing its radical agenda and the damage these efforts are doing to American society, go to the next articles, “Starving Social Programs,” “Stealth Deregulation: The Untold Story,” and “The Courthouse Crusade.”
1 Barry Goldwater, quoted in the Cato Institute, “The Paradox of the Statist Businessman” http://www.cato.org/pubs/policy_report/pr-ma-pa.html, June 19, 2006.
2 See the work of Professor Richard Epstein of the Chicago Law School. Also, see Epstein’s views described in William Greider, “The Right and U.S. Trade Law: Invalidating the 20th Century” Nation, October 15, 2001.
3 Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), p. 34.
4 Meg Bostrom, “By, or For, the People? A Meta-Analysis of Public Opinion of Government,” August 26, 2006, p. 33. http://www.demos.org/pubs/ByOrForthePeople20050426.pdf
5 Charles Murray, Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980 (New York: Basic Books, 1995), p. 227.
6 California Governor Ronald Reagan in the Sacramento Bee, April 28, 1966.
7 Metrotimes, “Dubious Achievement Awards, 2005,” June 20, 2006 http://www.metrotimes.com/editorial/story.asp?id=7162.
8 Daniel Schorr, “Bush’s Social Security Plan Carries Ideological Underpinnings,” All Things Considered, March 7, 2005.
9 Quoted in Earthworks Action, 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Fight the Right (Ashland, OR: Earthworks Press, 2006) p. 103.
10 People for the American Way, The Voucher Veneer: The Deeper Agenda to Privatize Public Education (Washington DC: People for the American Way, 2003) Appendix 1.
11 Quoted in Earthworks Action, 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Fight the Right (Ashland, OR: Earthworks Press, 2006) pp. 103-04.
12 “Action for All: The Public’s Responsibility for Public Education,” a report of findings from a nationwide survey sponsored by the Public Education Network and Education Week, April 2001, p. 9.
13 People for the American Way, The Voucher Veneer: The Deeper Agenda to Privatize Public Education (Washington DC: People for the American Way, 2003) p.3.
14 Libertarian Party of New Hampshire, “Key Issues.” http://www.lpnh.org/issues.htm
15 Hacker and Pierson, p. 50.
16 Ibid. p. 50.
17 William Greider, “The Right’s Grand Ambition: Rolling Back the 20th Century” May, 12, 2003, The Nation, p. 11.
18 See T.R. Reid’s discussion of Europeans’ positive attitudes toward the welfare state in The United States of Europe (New York,: The Penguin Press, 2004), p. 149.
19 Martin Gilens, Why American’s Hate Welfare (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1999), p. 26.
20 John Mickethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America (New York: The Penguin Press, 2004), p. 11, 13.
21 The National Election Studies, http://www.umich.edu/~nes/nesguide/toptable/tab5a_1.htm
22 Gilens, p. 26.
23 Gillens, p. 27.
24 Marc J. Hetherington, Why Trust Matters (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004) Chapter 3.
25 Hetherington, p. 45.
26 Cited in Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), p. 39.
27 Hacker and Pierson, p. 40.
28 Ibid. p. 40.
29 Ibid. pp. 28, 27.
30 Ibid. p. 28.