The Anti-Government Campaign
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The Bush Attack on Government
When George W. Bush was elected in 2000, the conservatives were finally in a position to effectively promote their anti-state ideology. Of course, they were not hostile to all parts of government. They were happy to spend hundreds of billions of dollars a year on defense programs and foreign wars. And many were quick to endorse the unprecedented expansions of George W. Bush’s presidential powers – all in the name of fighting terrorism.
When Bush and his fellow conservatives talked about reducing government, what they were targeting were the three main pillars of the modern democratic state: social programs, regulation of business, and the taxes needed to support these two efforts. For them, “too much government” really meant too many social programs, too much regulation, and too much taxation. And “reducing government” meant starving social programs, rolling back regulations, and cutting taxes. All three of these were important goals during the eight years of the Bush administration.
Cutting taxes was one of the most successful Bush administration attacks on government. Taxes were seen as the life blood of government; so if taxes could be reduced, then it would become more and more difficult to maintain funding for government programs. George W. Bush pushed through a number of enormous tax cuts during his administration. These tax cuts cost the federal government over two trillion dollars in lost revenue from 2001 to 2010 alone.5 This helped to create huge deficits and a growing national debt – all of which are now used by conservatives to argue that we can’t afford any new government programs. (For more on this issue, see the article “The Deficit Scare: Myth vs. Reality.”)
President Bush also took aim at social programs during his tenure in office. He repeatedly targeted education, housing, job training, community development, Medicaid, food stamps, and children’s services for budget cuts. Probably most emblematic of his hostility to social programs was his push to partially privatize Social Security. As The New York Times columnist Paul Krugman pointed out at the time, administration officials made it clear that they were not as interested in “saving” Social Security as they were in weakening it and striking a blow against government and social programs in general. One high placed Bush White House official argued that the ultimate goal of overhauling Social Security was to cut benefits and to “help the nation move away from dependency on government.”6 And as another conservative ideologue explained, the real agenda was to attack the whole notion of government social welfare spending: “Social Security is the soft underbelly of the welfare state. If you can jab your spear through that, you can undermine the whole welfare state.”7 (For more on Bush’s tax cuts and attacks on social programs, see the article “Starving the Beast.”)
During the Bush years, conservatives also made progress in their quest to “deregulate” American society. They were not only trying to roll back regulations on business, they were also busy handing over federal regulatory agencies to the special interests they were supposed to be regulating. Under Bush, the United States Department of Agriculture official in charge of regulating the meat packing industry previously worked for a group that lobbied for the National Cattleman’s Beef Association. Bush also named a mining industry executive to head the Mine Safety and Health Administration, and a lawyer who specialized in representing corporations seeking to block environmental regulations to be a top administrator in the Environmental Protection Agency. Officials who were supposed to be protecting workers, consumers, investors and the environment spent much of their time quietly dismantling existing regulations, delaying the development of new ones, and downplaying enforcement efforts. (For more on Bush’s anti-regulatory efforts, see the article “Stealth Deregulation: The Untold Story.”)
The Political Appeal of Anti-government Ideas
To understand the growth and influence of the anti-government movement in the United States, you also need to understand the powerful political appeal of government bashing. The idea that “government is bad” serves two important political functions for conservatives: (1) it provides a convenient scapegoat for many people’s problems, and (2) it serves as a common complaint to unite the disparate parts of the right-wing coalition. Let’s look at each of these things in turn.
Blaming government for virtually all of society’s problems can be very alluring. As the anxieties and insecurities of average Americans mount, the anti-government movement offers them a simple – and simplistic – explanation for who is at fault. Is the economy stagnant? It is because of government over-regulation of business. Are you having trouble paying your bills or sending your children to college on your current wages? It is because government takes so much of your salary in taxes. You didn’t get that job or that promotion? It is probably the fault of government promoted affirmative action programs. Worried about the moral decay of society? Blame government for taking prayer and God out of schools. Don’t have enough money for retirement? It’s the fault of government for not letting you invest your Social Security money in the stock market. Blaming government is a convenient, one-size fits-all explanation that can be stretched to fit just about every problem in this country.
Scapegoating government also has the advantage of not requiring a great deal of analysis to formulate solutions to our complex societal problems. All we have to do is reduce government. If big government is the cause of our problems, then obviously small government is the solution. It is all so simple.
Using the government as a scapegoat also appeals to many conservatives because it allows them to ignore the real – and more disturbing – causes of some of our problems. For example, die-hard government bashers have strained to blame the disastrous mortgage crisis and financial meltdown of 2008-2009 on bad government policies. This means they don’t have to acknowledge the numerous questionable practices of the banking and financial sectors that actually precipitated this crisis, and they can thus maintain their cherished illusion that unregulated markets are always good for society. (For more on how and why conservatives scapegoat government, see the article “Why the Government Becomes the Scapegoat.”)
Government-Hating as Political Glue
Disdain for government also serves as much of the ideological glue that holds the Republican electoral coalition together. The groups that make up this coalition are actually quite diverse – well-off suburbanites, gun owners, libertarians, fundamentalist Christians, the wealthy, small farmers, business interests, fiscal conservatives, and anti-tax activists – and they often have very different political priorities. Such a coalition is always in danger of falling apart. Much of what holds them together is their common dislike for government. So while they are all promoting somewhat different issues – the NRA wants the freedom to own guns, business wants less regulation, fundamentalists want prayer in school – what they do share is a common conviction that government often works against their interests and that they would be better off with less of it. As Grover Norquist has explained, this resentment is what binds these different groups into what he has called the “Leave Us Alone Coalition.” “The issue that brings people to politics is what they want from government. All our people want to be left alone by government. To be in this coalition, you only need to have your foot in the circle on this one issue."8
Who Funds the Anti-Government Campaign?
Another key reason that the anti-government movement has become so powerful in the United States is that it has been able to massively outspend pro-government groups. Huge amounts of money – amounting to billions of dollars – have fueled virtually every part of this political campaign. For example, conservative anti-government think tanks have a collective budget four times larger than their liberal counterparts.8 Hardly surprising since it is estimated the conservative donors have funneled over $1 billion into the top-twenty right-wing think tanks during the last several decades.9
So where does all this money come from? Certainly not from the pockets of average Americans. Some minimal-government groups, like the NRA, receive most of their funding from members’ donations. But much of the billions of dollars that have been donated to various parts of the anti-government movement have come from super-wealthy right-wing philanthropists and the foundations they have set up. For example, many of the major conservative and anti-government think tanks were created, virtually single-handedly, by grants from these philanthropists and their foundations. Joseph Coors initially bankrolled the Heritage Foundation in the 1970s. Then, between 1985 and 2003, right-wing foundations provided Heritage with over $57,000,000. The bulk of the Heritage’s yearly income still comes from foundations and wealthy individuals – 72% – with the rest coming from corporate donations, return on investments, and sales of materials.10
These right-wing foundations donate money to many different parts of the anti-government coalition, funneling millions not only to think tanks, but also to academic institutions, lobbying groups, conservative media outlets, and grassroots organizations.11 The major givers include the Sarah Scaife Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, the Shelby Cullom Davis Foundation, and the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation. The spending pattern of the ultraconservative Koch family is typical. They own Koch Industries, the second largest privately owned company in the United States, with yearly revenues of $40 billion. Charles Koch founded the libertarian Cato Institute. His brother David ran as the Libertarian candidate for president in 1980 and founded Citizens for a Sound Economy, another conservative think tank. They also direct three family foundations, which have made substantial donations to both of these think tanks – more than $12 million to each one between 1985 and 2002. Other think tanks receiving substantial Koch family support include the Heritage Foundation, the Hudson Institute, and the Heartland Institute. David Koch also founded Americans for Prosperity, an advocacy group that organized over 300 rallies against health care reform and has funded over 80 events targeting global warming legislation. Considerable Koch family money also goes to the Reason Foundation, publisher of the libertarian Reason magazine, and to various conservative and libertarian legal organizations, including the Federalist society and Institute for Justice. The Koch foundations have funneled huge sums into academia to support conservative scholars and programs. The primary beneficiary has been George Mason University, which has received over $23 million between 1985 and 2002, including a $10 million grant to help set up the James M. Buchanan Center for the Study of Political Economy.12
Finally, money from the Koch brothers has also been instrumental in funding the Tea Party movement and its electoral successes in 2010. Writing in her New Yorker profile of the Koch family, Jane Mayer described their influence this way:
The anti-government fervor infusing the 2010 elections represents a political triumph for the Kochs. By giving money to “educate,” fund, and organize Tea Party protesters, they have helped turn their private agenda into a mass movement. Bruce Bartlett, a conservative economist and a historian, who once worked at the National Center for Policy Analysis, a Dallas-based think tank that the Kochs fund, said, “The problem with the whole libertarian movement is that it’s been all chiefs and no Indians. There haven’t been any actual people, like voters, who give a crap about it. So the problem for the Kochs has been trying to create a movement.” With the emergence of the Tea Party, he said, “everyone suddenly sees that for the first time there are Indians out there—people who can provide real ideological power.” The Kochs, he said, are “trying to shape and control and channel the populist uprising into their own policies.”13