Have you ever wondered? What is the great “evil” that the Republicans, the right and the far right see in the Federal government? Why does the Tea Party crowd say “centralized government” as if the phrase were a code word for socialism or communism, those twin forces that once united our nation in opposition?
Explaining this phenomenon is certainly a subject worth longer treatment, but, for anyone wondering, a few points can be laid out in short order that might help to clear up the situation.
First, they oppose “Washington” because it works. Generations of Americans, especially those in the deep south and far west, have grown up being told the Washington is bad, period. This generation’s parents, their grandparents and great grandparents before them sang this same song. Really, it goes back almost to frontier days and, certainly, the Civil War and the time afterward. When the audience is conditioned to believe something is true without further examination, almost any politician will fall into using it. Why not?
Second, and this applies especially to big business and the far right, people oppose the Federal government because it is one thing they can’t control or buy off. State legislators with low pay, limited political and governmental experience can often be had for the price of a steak dinner. Washington, DC, is a lot more expensive than that. On top of Congress, you’ve got a powerful president who tries to answer to the whole country, not just one state or one powerful corporation. Big business doesn’t like this. It means that their self interest will sometimes get stepped on, hard, for the benefit of the country at large. They, in turn, push back.
Third, the wealthy and the extremely wealthy almost always oppose anything and everything that might diminish or harm their wealth and source of wealth, even if they are not sure it would. To an extent, it is nothing more than a reflex action. Opposition, further, is based on the idea that they earned their wealth, that they, or their parents or grandparents deserved the success they found and that they somehow got it completely on their own. This is a myth, because wealth in a society comes from that society as a whole. Being smart, eager and working hard can never guarantee millions of dollars. But, if you live in a country that builds roads, telephone networks, electrical grids and creates all the other infrastructure to go with the modern world, some people will get rich, in part, because of the availability of these services. The wealthy did not build the circumstances which led to their wealth, they took advantage of what was available and placed themselves in a position to benefit. (Try tell this to a family of wealth, however, and you will get thrown out the front door, fast.)
In a larger, economic sense, where does the wealth come from in the first place? There has to be a middle class buying goods and services or, in the case of a third world country, a vast underclass that still has some money to purchase goods. In other words, the wealth of the rich comes from you and me. The money we make and spend is most often assigned to the rich by virtue of the fact that they control money. They can build apartments and condos (etc.) and harvest our earnings for themselves over time. The poor and the middle class support the wealthy. Without them, the only wealth available would come from foreign trade or the selling of lux goods.
Consider a mortgage on a house. What is it? It is an agreement to pay a lot of money, usually over a thirty year time period, to people who operate banks (the wealthy) and other places of lending. To look at it another way, a group of rich people lets you have some money, secured by the house you are living in, provided you pay two or three times the amount of money back. At current interest rates, a house costing 200,000 dollars will actually cost you about 400,000, plus maintenance, taxes, insurance, etc., over a thirty year period. Most people never stop to think about what a mortgage actually costs them.
Another “evil” from the Federal government is the fact that it generally has to act uniformly among all the states. People like the former Majority Leader of the House, Tom Delay, want the whole country to be just like their little area. They think they are right and anyone who disagrees with them is wrong, even morally wrong. (It makes it so much more fun to imagine moral superiority.)
To my mind, the far right and Tom Delays aren’t really comfortable living in a large, modern nation with a variety of points of view. They want all of us to be like them and they can’t understand why they get any resistance. As a political stance, New York is like a foreign country to Tom Delay and it can only be tolerated if he can impose his will on it. In that regard, the so called conservatives actually want the government to be stronger and take enforcement actions against people in other states, even while they claim to want less government. They want more for their purposes and less where they see it harming them.
The opposite of having a strong, central government would be to have 50 independent states. We tried having almost no federal government during the early years after the revolution. It didn’t work. If we truly divided into separate camps, we wouldn’t have the collective power that conservatives love so much, the power to make war and pay for national defense. The states would simply refuse to send the money to Washington or would send so little that it wouldn’t be enough.
As a nation, we would head quickly into disaster without the federal government. Roads would decline, there would be little or no state to state planning or coordination. States like Texas would end all subsidized medical care, including that now offered the elderly, or they would limit it so much that it would become nearly useless in a time of crisis. There would be no way to address collective projects. Air traffic control, a function of the federal government, would probably cost airlines two and three times as much. We would go back to the days when it cost two or three thousand dollars to fly coast to coast and almost as much to fly a few hundred miles. Why? Because everyone would be in it for themselves and huge inefficiencies would result.
Unfettered by bothersome environmental or other regulations, the wealthy class would skyrocket, for a time, into the super wealthy. Billion dollar fortunes would become ordinary. The ranks of the poor would also climb and millions would fall out of the middle class into poverty. Millions would be pushed into poverty by the forces let loose by the unlimited power of the wealthy. Late on a mortgage payment? Here come the goons with a moving truck. Prisons would overflow, even more than they do now in California.
The wealthy and super rich, who are the mainstays of the Republican party, don’t actually want to see all of this happen. They want to cripple the federal government so that it cannot threaten their interests, but they want it to be there when they need it, like a piggy bank, but they don’t want it poking its nose into their businesses or doing things like helping the poor. The Republican party very much wants billions of dollars in farm subsidies every year (socialism!) and the trillion dollar defense budget should stay right where it is, thank you. At base, it is a matter of trying to keep the programs they like and destroy or limit all the rest.
In all of their critiques of the national government, the right and far right fail to explain why they believe one of the most successful governments, and prosperity producing socities, the world has ever known is now somehow all wrong. Taxes is the great evil beast they are trying to slay (in the name of the common man, of course!), but it is taxes that have helped build the success of the nation and boost “the general welfare”, as the Constitution says.
If you look at almost any aspect of American society, government has played a role in producing prosperity or in preventing full out disaster. The national railroad system? Built with government intervention. The Interstate Highway system? Built mainly with federal money and conceived by a Republican president (Eisenhower). Airports, airlines? The airports were, and are, supported by federal dollars. The development of aircraft was greatly aided by defense spending and mail contracts, both from the federal government. How about utilities? They were given monopolies by the government. The development of personal computers and the Internet? Silicon chips were developed mainly for defense applications and the Internet sprang from federal support for defense oriented computer networks and those linked to colleges and universities.
Additionally, the government has played a vital role in creating vast opportunities for the creation of wealth among the very people, the wealthy, who now oppose it. Radio and television station licenses were given away to those who could demonstrate qualifications to run the stations (mainly, that meant money). Cell phones? The mega billion dollar cell phone business started with the federal government giving away one free license in each city and town to the existing telephone companies at the time. Free. The first rounds of the other cell license process was also free.
Why, in the early 21st century, have so many people decided they don’t need the federal government any more? Could it be that they, the wealthy, have what it is they feel they need and they now want to hold back further development of the country, which will cost them money? To put it plainly, the wealthy and the super rich are always shortsighted, as a general rule. Just as an 84 year old man is very unlikely to vote for new taxes to pay for a school he will never see built, the rich, in the main, don’t feel they have a stake in matters which do not benefit them.
For those on the right who are not wealthy, a great deal of the enmity against Washington is generated by the abortion issue and by dissatisfaction with the modern world. No one, except drug addicts and dealers, likes the fact that destructive drugs are so widely available. No one likes the fact that one can risk one’s life just by driving a car through a drug infested area. No one but criminals likes crime. But these forces were not created by the Democratic party or politics, although I would concede that some government interventions probably contributed to social problems.
The abortion issue is more complicated. One way to have a moral position in life, when dealing with any issue, is to simply refrain from immoral action and the teach your children to do the same. Don’t have an abortion, in other words. This is not enough. The cultural conservatives have convinced themselves that abortion is one of the most evil things in the world, even while our bombers and missiles are sent to other countries to kill living human beings. At the same time, many who oppose abortion favor the death penalty, creating the situation where “save ‘em in the womb, kill ‘em when they get here” applies. Is that too harsh? When people march in the streets urging respect of “all life”, is it too much to ask that they mean what they say?
No one favors abortion. It is a lousy, unfortunate form of birth control, beyond a doubt. For the women’s movement, abortion rights, however, are a symbol of liberation for women away from the time when they were merely considered vessels to bring new life into the world, period. If birth could be once again enforced on women, then it would be very difficult for them to achieve full participation in society, which they generally have now in western, developed nations. That, again, gets back to being uncomfortable with change and the modern world.
There is no good solution to the abortion issue that would satisfy both sides. That is one reason it is a great issue for the right to keep harping on: it can always been counted on for millions of votes. Ronald Reagan, the great hero of the right, it should be noted, never proposed either legislatively or constitutionally to end abortions when he was president. Perhaps he realized the continuing value of the issue to Republican candidates.
Is the abortion issue, or gay marriage, a good reason to oppose Washington forever? Again, if we broke into independent states, Ohio or Pennsylvania could do whatever they wanted. Poorer residents who faced a problem with abortion could not get one and those who had money would simply flee to another state for treatment. Abortions cannot be stopped by government intervention, but they could be restricted to only those with money.
To an extent, the unhappiness with the national government stems from the fact that it operates as a mediator between the various regional belief systems in the country. Change has come too fast over the last sixty years for many. How nice it would be if we could turn back the clock to a “better” time. We can’t and we won’t, but that doesn’t stop people from trying.
The national government did not create the social changes that have swept the nation, of course. Conservatives, who say they are for limited government, nonetheless want the government to act as moralist on the abortion issue and decide it for everyone in our society. Proposing that the government do this appeals to those who are discontented. That discontent often turns into votes. The Republican party is unable to deliver the goods on many of these issues, especially the hot button ones like gay marriage and abortions, but their supporters don’t seem to care. It is enough to promise to do something and keep hoping for that super majority that can wipe out the last fifty to a hundred years of change.
The long and short of opposition to the federal government boils down to the fact that it does many things that a lot of people don’t like. Instead of primarily targeting those actions, a general cry goes up against “Washington” and its ways. These are coded attacks which, to the right wing faithful, translate into “we are going to make Washington stop doing those things that we don’t like or that don’t benefit us directly”.
It is not really the evil of “centralized government” that the right is fighting, it is the power of the federal government to tax and to mediate between the various state and regional interests of the nation and to try to implement solutions to problems. The wealthy would like to have a more comfortable time knowing that the national government would not be taking on and addressing new problems, like the lack of high speed rail service. The right and far right, as a general rule, do not want problems to be addressed, unless they hit directly at their interest. If ultimately successful, they would threaten the survival of one of the most successful, prosperity producing systems the world has ever known. Whatever arguments are made about excess in taxation or actions, no one on the right wants to provide an answer as to why this highly successful system should be destroyed, one bit at a time. They just want the voters to except the idea that it is “evil”.
Doug Terry, 2.7.11