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.


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