The Anti-Government Campaign
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Corporations also played crucial role in the growing power of the anti-government movement in this era. In the 1960s and early 1970s, they were caught off guard by citizen activism and suffered a series of embarrassing policy defeats. Congress passed major legislation to increase environmental protection, workplace safety regulations, and consumer protection – all of which business strongly opposed. Reeling from these political losses, business leaders began meeting in the mid-seventies to plot their political counter-offensive. Their main weapon was money and they started to funnel huge amounts of it into a variety of political efforts. They put significant funds into corporate political action committees, the number of which grew from under 300 in 1973 to over 1,200 by the 1980s. Business PAC spending increased 500% between the late 1970s and late 1980s. This money greatly boosted the prospects of pro-business and anti-government candidates. Corporations also increased their lobbying presence in Washington and began pushing hard for deregulation and smaller government. The number of firms with registered lobbyists skyrocketed from 175 in 1971 to almost 2,500 by 1982. Another tactic was for corporations to pour tens of millions of dollars into “advocacy advertising” in an effort to sell Americans on the virtues of business and the evils of big government. Firms also became adept at organizing their employees, shareholders, and suppliers to generate “grassroots” letter writing campaigns (what some have called “Astroturf campaigns”) to pressure Congress.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan rode to victory thanks to public discontent and a Republican party awash in corporate funds. He was the first modern Republican president to run on an openly anti-government platform. And he made his “government is bad” perspective clear in a famous sentence he uttered during his first inaugural speech: “Government isn’t the solution; it is the problem.” In the end, Reagan had very little real success implementing his anti-government agenda. He did succeed in pushing through several large tax cuts, but his efforts to cut back on many federal programs were routinely defeated by a Democratic Congress.
What Reagan did achieve was to put minimal-government sentiments at the center of mainstream Republican ideology. Since the 1980s, virtually every Republican candidate (and even many Democratic ones) has made running against government a major part of his or her campaign. And once in office, conservatives have spent a lot of their energy demonizing and denigrating government. Being anti-government – sometimes radically so – has simply become part of what it means to be a Republican.
The 1980s also saw the growing dominance of right-wing, anti-government think tanks in Washington. Fueled by hundreds of millions of dollars from conservative philanthropists and the business community (more on this later), these libertarian and conservative think tanks grew to be much larger and influential than their liberal counterparts. Organizations like the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Cato Institute began to provide much of the intellectual ammunition used in the war on government. These idea factories produced hundreds of books, reports, articles, news releases, op-ed pieces and editorials making the case for cutting taxes, curbing spending, and rolling back regulations. They also produced enormous policy handbooks that were used by conservative administrations as a detailed guide to anti-government initiatives. The Washington Post described Cato’s Handbook on Policy as“a soups to nuts agenda to reduce spending, kill federal programs, terminate whole agencies and dramatically restrict the power of the federal government.” This handbook became especially influential during the administration of George W. Bush.
The 1990s saw the emergence of a crucial new element in the political offensive against government: the increasing power and presence of conservative pundits in the media. First came the explosive growth of conservative talk radio. This was made possible when, in 1987, the Federal Communications Commission was ordered by President Reagan to abolish the Fairness Doctrine. This policy had required stations to cover public issues in a balanced way that included contrasting views. Once that was out of the way, right-wing radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity could spend hours a day broadcasting one-sided tirades against big government and liberal politicians. By the turn of the century, these anti-government programs became the most popular talk shows on the air, with millions of listeners. Even today, these shows occupy 11 of the top 11 spots in talk radio in the United States.
Then, in 1996, Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes, a former Republican Party strategist, started Fox News with the explicit intention of making it a vehicle for spreading conservative ideas. It quickly became the 24/7 anti-government channel. The right-wing commentators on Fox dispensed misinformation about government programs and spread rumors about government malfeasance. They regularly resorted to malicious slurs against government officials, calling them “idiots,” “Nazis,” “communists,” “fascists,” and “Satanists.” Ever since then, they have played a crucial role in the anti-government movement with their continuous efforts to defame, denigrate, and delegitimize government. It is hard to underestimate how instrumental media outlets like Fox News and conservative talk radio have been in encouraging many Americans to distrust, fear, and even hate government.
The anti-government movement received another big boost when the Republicans took over Congress after the 1994 elections. A central part of the “Republican Revolution” was an immense hostility toward many established government programs – from welfare, to business regulation, to environmental protection. One Republican leader, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, said that one of his political ambitions was “reduce the federal government by half.”He even had a hit list of dozens of agencies to be axed, and the “first to go must be the Department of Education, which produces noting but puffed up rhetoric, while squandering billions of dollars annually.”4
But again, the Republicans were not successful in pulling off this anti-government revolution. President Clinton was successful in blocking most of their efforts to cut back on government programs. And these conservatives also found that they were out of step with public opinion. While most Americans liked the ideas of tax cuts, they did not like the idea of cutting back on programs that they valued – like education, health care, etc. There was a particularly strong public backlash against the Republican effort to roll back environmental regulations. Any truly successful effort to implement an anti-government agenda on the federal level would have to wait until the Republicans controlled both Congress and the White House.