Is Government No Longer a Four Letter Word?

January 25th, 2013



“Preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.”
With that bloodless, analytical sentence from his second inaugural address, President Obama set off a firestorm of protest among conservatives. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell called the speech “unabashedly far-left-of-center.” House Speaker John Boehner said the President’s mission was to “annihilate the Republican Party.”

“Good grief,” Charlie Brown would say.

What Obama was doing was responding to the Reagan Revolution. The rallying cry of that revolution, delivered in President Reagan’s 1981 inaugural address, was this: “Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.” That has been the reigning principle of American politics for 32 years. Even President Clinton reaffirmed it when he said in 1996, “The era of big government is over.”

President Obama wasn’t saying the era of big government is back. He was saying that Republicans have gone too far. They have been taken over by the Tea Party, which challenges the most consensual functions of government: providing security and ensuring opportunity. That requires–the President dared to say–”collective action.” The term “collective action” gives Republicans a nosebleed. It sounds like collectivism. That’s socialism!

Actually, it’s the most basic function of government. This country has been debating strong government versus weak government for more than 200 years. The bias has always been in favor of weak government. Most people came here seeking economic freedom or religious freedom. They associated government with excessive power (King George III). The country’s first governing document, the Articles of Confederation (1781), set up a central government that was so weak it was unworkable. It had to be thrown out and replaced by the Constitution in 1789.

For roughly the first century of American history, progressive forces favored weak government. Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson were intensely anti-government. That’s because government was associated with economic power and social privilege. Jackson famously vetoed spending for internal improvements–roads, canals, bridges–because he believed it gave the federal government too much power.

Throughout the 19th century, the Democratic Party was the anti-government party. As the party of the left, Democrats represented the out-groups of society: working people, immigrants, the non-religious. Even Southern slaveholders, who suspected–correctly–that the federal government wanted to take away their property.

Those were the days before the federal income tax, which was not authorized until the Sixteenth Amendment in 1913. Before that, the principal source of revenue for the federal government was not “internal revenue” (taxes) but external revenue–tariffs. Sure enough, the debate over tariffs was the defining partisan issue. Democratic Party platforms in the 19th century called for “tariffs for purposes of revenue only.” Meaning, don’t spend government money for purposes larger than to keep the government running.

It’s the same debate we have today over taxes. In his first speech to Congress in February 1981, President Reagan said, “The taxing power of government must be used to provide revenues for legitimate government purposes. It must not be used to regulate the economy or bring about social change.”

Around the turn of the 20th century, the parties’ positions on government began to reverse. Progressives discovered something radically new: that the power of government could be used to curb abusive economic power, which was rampant in the era of trusts and monopolies. Former Republican President Theodore Roosevelt articulated the new progressive doctrine in a speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, in 1910. In order to curb the power of wealth and special interests, Roosevelt called for “a far more active governmental interference with social and economic conditions in this country than we have yet had.”

One hundred and one years later, President Obama opened his re-election campaign with a speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, echoing the same themes. Obama said in 2011, “As a nation, we’ve always come together, through our government, to help create the conditions where both workers and businesses can succeed.” In his second inaugural address, Obama said, “A modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce.” So much for Andrew Jackson’s hostility to internal improvements.

In the 1930s, the Democrats under Franklin D. Roosevelt figured out that the power of the federal government could be used to promote economic justice: the New Deal. They folded supporters of the Progressive movement into the Democratic Party. In the 1960s, Democrats figured out that the power of the federal government could be used to promote social justice: the civil rights movement. To be a progressive today is to be supportive of federal power.

Notice that the Democratic Party changed its ideology, from anti-government to pro-government. But the party did not change its allegiance. The Democratic Party remained the party of out-groups. Only now, those out-groups saw the federal government as their ally, not their enemy. Under President Obama, the Democratic coalition includes working and single women, African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, gays, young people, Jewish voters, educated professionals, and the “unchurched” (the one fifth of Americans who say they have “no religion”).

That’s the New America. For different reasons, they all see themselves as out-groups. They see the federal government as a force that protects their interests and promotes their values. They see the Republican Party as the party of entrenched wealth and privilege (i.e., Mitt Romney). What’s changed is that the New America is becoming the nation’s majority. Democrats have carried the popular vote in five out of the last six presidential elections. Democrats are even launching a plan to make the nation’s iconic red state more competitive: “Battleground Texas.”

Republicans feel threatened. And they should. Speaker Boehner says the goal of the Obama Administration is “just shove us into the dustbin of history.” Rep. Paul Ryan, the party’s candidate for vice president last year, said this week, “Our party’s value-add to the political system at the moment… is to help prevent a debt crisis.” The debt issue is a pretext Republicans use to call for deep reductions in federal spending. If Republicans were really concerned about the debt, they would not be resisting any and all tax increases. Curbing federal spending is not a high priority for the New America.

The progressive vision that animates Obama’s agenda (“collective action”) is the same progressive vision that animated Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt. “Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time,” the President said on Monday. “But it does require us to act in our time.” That’s exactly what he proposes to do.