The Anti-Government Campaign

 

 

There is a war on government in this country. It is being waged by a coalition of powerful political groups that seeks to demonize government and shrink it dramatically. The aim of this well-organized political campaign is to slash taxes, radically reduce social spending, and undermine regulatory programs. This article describes how this anti-government movement has grown, who it appeals to, who is funding it, and whose interests it is really promoting.

The Goal: To Drown Government in the Bathtub

If there is one person who for many years has exemplified this anti-government campaign it has been Grover Norquist who heads up Americans for Tax Reform. He is one of the most powerful conservative figures in Washington D.C. and he is a leading advocate of slashing taxes and dismantling government programs. Every week he hosts a breakfast meeting at his organization’s headquarters on L Street in Washington. This meeting serves as one of the informal nerve centers for the anti-government campaign in the United States. The attendees of the invitation-only affair normally include members of Congress, corporate lobbyists, Republican National Committee representatives, the House and Senate leadership staff of the GOP, conservative media editors and reporters, right-wing think-tank intellectuals, and prominent grassroots activists. The topics of discussion vary from week to week, but the general theme is the same: how to wage war on the government. When the Republicans are in power, they discuss what tax cuts to promote and which regulations to get rid of. When the Democrats are in power, they strategize about what new programs must be blocked and how best to portray liberals and their policies as dangerous and anti-American. And Norquist has always made it clear what the ultimate aim of all of this activity is: “My goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub."1

This goal of a radically reduced government is not simply the dream of small-state ideologues within the Beltway in Washington D.C. Consider the 2008 platform of the Republican Party in Texas. It called for the elimination of every federal agency not mentioned in the original constitution – including the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Departments of Energy, Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, Education, Commerce and Labor. Programs like Social Security and policies like the minimum wage would also be abolished. And Texas Republicans believe that not only should taxes never be increased, but that most current taxes should be abolished, including income taxes, inheritance taxes, capital gains, corporate income taxes, payroll taxes, and property taxes.2 In short, this GOP platform is a blueprint for how to cripple the federal government.

Some people had hoped that the election of President Obama would signal a reduction in the relentless government bashing that has come from the political right. But the President’s attempt to create new public sector programs actually prompted conservatives to dramatically escalate their attacks on government. In fact, the anti-government rhetoric quickly reached near hysterical levels. Fox News commentators like Glenn Beck repeatedly accused the President of being a “closet communist” and warned of the coming of a “totalitarian state.” For the conservative political activist Alan Keys, Obama’s policy initiatives showed that he was clearly a “radical communist.” And the right-wing media pundit, Michael Savage, described the Obama administration as a “fascist dictatorship.”

The emergence of the Tea Party movement was another manifestation of this virulent backlash against government. This grassroots effort has sought to whip up public anger and resentment and channel it directly at “big government.” In the 2010 elections, several Tea Party candidates for Congress maintained that the federal government had become so overwhelmingly repressive that armed resistance was not out of the question. The Republican candidate for the Senate in Alaska serious argued that many major government programs – ranging from Social Security to Medicare to unemployment compensation – were unconstitutional and should be abolished.

When the Republicans took over the House of Representatives after the 2010 elections, the anti-government movement went on the offensive again. Virtually all congressional Republicans signed Norquist’s radical No New Taxes Pledge, promising never to raise taxes under any circumstances. In 2011, Republican Representative Paul Ryan introduced a GOP budget plan that proposed to savagely cut the federal budget by $4.5 trillion dollars and to effectively end Medicare and Medicaid as we know it. Dramatically shrinking the size of the federal government is once again on the national agenda.

How did we reach the point where this kind of extreme hatred for government has became part of mainstream politics in this country? Where did this anti-government movement come from?

The Evolution of the Modern Anti-Government Movement in America

To understand this intense hostility toward government we need to understand its history. The roots of the modern anti-government movement can be traced to the 1940s and 50s. It was largely a reaction to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, which introduced many of the policies and programs that now define the modern state: federal mechanisms to manage the economy, large social programs like Social Security, the increased regulation of business, and progressive taxation. These liberal policies created a conservative counter-reaction which condemned FDR’s programs as “creeping socialism.” Right-wing critics called for a return to the laissez-faire days of the 1920s, when businesses and financial institutions were largely unregulated, taxes were low, and people were free to deal with social and economic problems on their own.

However, the New Deal programs proved widely popular among most Americans and few had any real interest in returning to the “bad old days” of the 1920s and 30s. This meant that during the 1940s and 50s, the anti-government movement remained small and largely intellectual – kept alive by a handful of conservative writers. In 1953, for instance, Russell Kirk published The Conservative Mind, still considered a seminal work in right-wing anti-state ideology. In it he condemned federally sponsored school lunch programs as a “vehicle for totalitarianism,” and labeled Social Security as a form of “remorseless collectivism.” Another writer, Ayn Rand, was also promoting a radically pro-individual/anti-government vision of society in her novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.

In 1955, William F. Buckley founded The National Review, widely considered to be the first serious intellectual journal of conservatism in the U.S. Buckley and his colleagues were heavily influenced by libertarianism – a radical anti-state ideology that had few adherents among the public, but was attractive to conservatives fighting an uphill battle against growing government. Libertarianism maintains that individual freedom is the highest political value and that virtually all government activity inevitably impinges on that freedom.3 In this view, the only legitimate purposes of government are to maintain order and protect individual rights, particularly property rights. Governments should not run schools, regulate business, or establish any social welfare programs. Government funding of armies, police, and the courts are considered necessary evils – all other government activities are just evil.

In the 1950s, most mainstream Republican politicians, like President Eisenhower, wanted nothing to do with the libertarian-tinged anti-state ideology of Buckley and his cohort. They believed that they had little choice but to accept New Deal economics and social programs – these were simply a given of modern government. Other leading Republicans in the 1960s and 70s, like Nelson Rockefeller, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, also accepted many of the basic tenets of New Deal liberalism. They were political moderates who at times actively supported the expansion of government programs and responsibilities.

The one exception to this trend was Barry Goldwater, who ran for president on the Republican ticket in 1964. Among other controversial stands, Goldwater made his anti-government hostility perfectly clear. He often stated that his primary goal was not to improve government, but to shrink it. As he put it at the time:

I have little interest in streamlining government or in making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size. I do not undertake to promote welfare, for I propose to extend freedom. My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them. It is not to inaugurate new programs, but to cancel old ones that do violence to the Constitution or that have failed their purpose, or that impose on the people an unwarranted financial burden.

Goldwater’s views and policies proved wildly unpopular among voters and he lost in a landslide, garnering only 36% of the vote. But even though he lost this political battle, he was to eventually win his political campaign to put anti-government ideology at the center of the Republican Party. Young Goldwater supporters had infiltrated many parts of the party in their successful attempt to get him the nomination. Many stayed on and continued to push his political agenda and to move the party toward more of an explicit minimal government stance.

Throughout the 1970s, anti-government activists in the Republican Party were able to take advantage of a number of developments that contributed to growing public disenchantment with government, such as the failure of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. Conservatives also played on public resentments, such as the perception by some whites that government policies like civil rights and affirmative action unfairly favored minorities. Finally, Republicans also benefited from increasing public worries about economic insecurity. They offered the appealing argument that it was government that was causing the stagnant economy and rampant inflation of the late 1970s, and that all we needed to do to solve these problems was to reduce government, curtail business regulation, and unleash the free market.

 

 

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.

 

 

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

  

  

The Role of Big Business

The other main funder of the anti-government campaign is big business. But its motivations differ substantially from that of many philanthropists. While the Koch family is clearly opposed to government as a matter of deep political principle, business is not. The opposition of corporations to government is based almost entirely on economic selfishness – they are concerned about their own bottom line. Their lack of principle is obvious in their inconsistency – if not to say hypocrisy – when it comes to opposing government programs. The business community is adamant about opposing taxes or regulations that cut into their profits, but it is more than willing to take government subsidies and other forms of “corporate welfare.” And many businesses are not opposed to government interference in free markets as long as they themselves benefit. Their selective opposition to government is thus a matter of self-interest, not ideology.

As mentioned earlier, business began funneling large amounts of money into anti-government efforts as far back as the late 1970s and has long played a crucial role in the growth of this movement. For example, hundreds of millions have been invested in anti-government think tanks and corporations now play a major role in governing many of these organizations. Today, for instance, most of the board of directors of the American Enterprise Institute are CEOs of major companies, including American Express, ExxonMobil, Motorola, State Farm Insurance and Dow Chemicals.

Business has also ramped up its incredibly powerful lobbying machinery to support various anti-government efforts in Congress. Corporations and industry trade groups far outnumber all the other lobbies in Washington put together, and these well-heeled organizations are also able to employ more lobbyists and better-paid lobbyists than anyone else. Corporations lobby on a wider variety of anti-government measures than any other conservative interest group. They not only pressure lawmakers to lower corporate taxes, they also strongly oppose environmental and consumer protection regulations. They work against pro-labor policies like the minimum wage and workplace safety rules. They even push for cutbacks in social programs like welfare and unemployment insurance because these give workers a temporary alternative to working, and thus increase their bargaining power with employers. No other lobby matches the business community in either its resources or its wide-ranging policy agenda.

Corporations also funnel money to various other “advocacy” groups that promote their anti-state agenda of cutting taxes and reducing regulations. For example, Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform tries to portray itself as a grassroots organization, but it really relies on business to survive. A mere forty corporate donors supply fully a third of the budget for Norquist’s organization. Or consider another advocacy group, Citizens for Sensible Control of Acid Rain, one of the most active lobbies working against air pollution regulations in the 1980s and 1990s. In fact, this group had no citizen members at all and was entirely funded by the utility and coal industries.

Business also invests heavily in anti-government politicians, mostly in the form of campaign contributions that help these candidates win office. One conduit for this money is corporate political action committees, where their donations have far outpaced the spending of any other interest group. In the 2008 election cycle, for instance, environmental PACs donated $813,000 to Congressional candidates. But donations from just four industries likely to oppose environmental regulations (oil and gas, chemicals, forest products, and mining) exceeded $16 million – twenty times that of the environmental groups.14 And none of this takes into account the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in the Citizen’s United that has now opened the floodgates to virtually unlimited corporate spending in elections.

And we need to also count the large individual donations given to campaigns by business owners, executives, and managers. We like to think of individual campaign donations as representing a broad cross-section of Americans, but this is not true. Close to eighty per cent of the billions given in individual donations for federal elections come from big donors – donors who make up only 0.2% of the population, and four out five of whom earn more than $100,000.15 Needless to say, most of these well-off donors are likely to have strong corporate connections, to be conservative, and to support an anti-government agenda.

In short, the business establishment has not only been the chief pressure group in the anti-government movement, it has also served as its cash cow. For the past 30 years, it has been a generous and dependable source of financial support for the attack on government. It is not an exaggeration to say that the anti-government movement would not be as influential as it is today in American politics without the constant and massive infusions of money that it has received from corporations and business owners.

Government Bashing as a Political Smokescreen for Elite Interests

The role that business and wealthy philanthropists have played in providing the financial life blood of the anti-government campaign betrays its elitist underpinnings. Despite the presence of some grassroots elements like the Tea Party in this political movement, it has been largely created and supported by rich individuals and organizations, largely for their own interests. Irrespective of its populist rhetoric, this movement is clearly working to promote the agenda of some of the most powerful and moneyed interests in American society.

In fact, one of the main reasons the anti-government crusade is so popular among well-to-do interests is because it provides them with a smokescreen that they can use to obscure their real political goals. For example, drug companies and the health insurance industry have constantly exploited people’s misgivings about big government as a way to promote their own economic self-interest in maintaining private control over the health system. In debates about health care reform, these businesses and their conservative allies have constantly raised the specter of “government bureaucrats controlling your health care decisions” as a way of scaring people away from reform plans that might cut into their corporate profits.

Similarly, when businesses want to reduce regulatory protections for workers, they argue that they are only trying to reduce the government red-tape and bureaucracy. They are not putting their workers at risk; they are simply “opposing unreasonable intrusions of big government into the private sector” and “getting government off the back of businesses.” Who could complain about that? Similarly, conservative consultant Frank Luntz has told business lobbyists and Republican lawmakers that when they are trying to weaken environmental protections, they should describe their activities as “streamlining” and “modernizing” government. They can thus seem to be attacking “excess government,” not the environment.

Anti-government rhetoric also allowed Republicans to sidestep the accusation that their policies are a form of “class warfare.” Clearly, most of the benefits of the Republican tax cuts during the Bush administration fell to the rich and to corporations, and the costs of cuts in social programs fell disproportionately on working people, minorities, and the poor – the very definition of class warfare. But such criticisms were blunted by Republican claims that they were only waging war on government. President Bush claimed that his numerous tax cuts were simply an effort to reduce the onerous burden of government taxes – and everyone knows taxes are bad. And cuts in social programs were portrayed as simply “reining in out of control government spending” and “reducing big government.”

This anti-government spin on conservative policies works to obscure the fact that an attack on government is often an attack on those Americans who are least well-off. In reality, reducing government takes power away from those in society who most need the government to protect their interests – those who are most vulnerable to job layoffs, those who need to protect themselves from workplace discrimination and dangers on the job, or those who need government to ensure equal educational opportunity or a fair minimum wage. As Max Neiman explained in his book, Defending Government, shrinking government not only eliminates programs that aid the less well-off, it also reduces their political power as well.

The attack on government has involved … a focused effort to make it more difficult for the less privileged of society to have access to governing authority. If the assault on public programs and the capacity to produce them is permanently and broadly successful, then making life fairer and better for the least advantaged and less politically connected members of society will be more difficult.16

The basic point is this: the deeply disturbing nature of many conservative policies is being hidden behind a political smokescreen – an effort to portray these policies as mere attempts to reduce government and the “bad effects” it is having on society. The whole anti-government campaign has become a very handy way for some powerful and well-off groups to disguise the true intentions of their policies and to deflect potential public opposition.

Even More Worrisome 

This has been the story of where the anti-government movement came from and how it came to be such a powerful force in American politics. But even more disturbing is what it wants to do with that power – how it is committed to undermining many of the essential progressive government programs that have been created during the last 100 years. To see just how radical the anti-government agenda really is and how it conflicts with the political views of most Americans, turn to the next article, “The Anti-Government Movement’s Radical Agenda.”

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Notes

1. Quoted in Robert Dreyfuss, “Grover Norquist: 'Field Marshal' of the Bush Plan,” The Nation, April 26, 2001.

2. http://www.tfn.org/site/DocServer/GOP_-Final_2008_Platform.pdf?docID=582

3. For a summary of Libertarian philosophy and policy positions, see the Libertarian Party’s website, http://www.lp.org/issues/issues.shtml.

4. Dick Armey, The Freedom Revolution (New York: Regnery Publishers, 1995) p. 304.

5. Urban Institute, “Bush Tax Cuts,” January 16, 2008. http://www.urban.org/decisionpoints08/archive/01bushtaxcuts.cfm

6. Daniel Schoor, “Bush’s Social Security Plan Carries Ideological Underpinnings,” All Things Considered, March 7, 2005.

7. Paul Krugman, “Spearing the Beast,” The New York Times, February 8, 2005, p. A25.

8. Karen M. Paget, “Lessons of Right Wing Philanthropy” The American Prospect, Number 40, September-October 1998, p. 92.

9. David Brock, The Republican Noise Machine (New York: Crown Publishing, 2004), p. 48.

10. This figure is for 1988. See Sourcewatch, “Heritage Foundation,” http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Heritage_Foundation, June 17, 2006.

11. People for the American Way, “Buying a Movement,” http://www.pfaw.org/pfaw/general/default.aspx?oid=2052, June 17, 2006.

12. Media Transparency, “The Koch Family Foundations,” http://www.mediatransparency.org/funderprofile.php?funderID=9, June 15, 2006.

13. Jane Mayer, “Covert Operations: The Billionaire Brothers Who Are Waging a War Against Obama,” The New Yorker, August 30, 2010.

14. Open Secrets, “PACs by Industry," http://www.opensecrets.org/pacs/list.php

15. Public Campaign, “Hard Facts: Hard Money in the 2000 Election,” http://www.publicampaign.org/publications/studies/hardfacts2000/fullreport.htm, June 17, 2006

16. Max Neiman, Defending Government: Why Big Government Works (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2000) p. 2.