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What would Lincoln think?

August 24, 2012
By Bruce Dudley

In speeches at the Republican Convention, there will likely be demands for less government and more unrestrained business enterprise. Such anti-government rhetoric should confirm a widely held opinion that the GOP has strayed far from rational discourse or understanding this nation's historical economic development.

Conservatives who regularly pay homage to the blessings of free-market capitalism conveniently omit the key role of government in America's economic development.

Contemporary economic writer Jeff Madrick has taken note of this obvious ideological spin: "Advocates of this simple explanation of American advance badly neglect the central part government had in the painful and uncertain transition to a manufacturing economy in the first place, and the creation and enhancement of the basic conditions of growth - an ever more educated population, efficient transportation, communications, a body of law, and the coordination of the assets of an increasingly complex economy."

Over the years the notion has emerged that government is somehow the enemy. This was not George Washington's attitude, nor Alexander Hamilton's, nor Teddy Roosevelt's. Like all great American statesmen, they viewed government as a valuable and indispensable means of promoting the public good.

To understand the hostility to government by zealous conservatives of the modern Republican Party, one must focus on both the origins and motivations behind the persistent attacks on governing institutions.

Although the genesis of the "government is bad" mantra can be traced back to the business community's reaction against FDR's New Deal, it became full blown in the 1960s, during the unsuccessful presidential campaign of conservative icon Barry Goldwater.

Regarded then as a curiously aberrant deviation from the political norm, this idea has evolved over time into a calculated effort to delegitimize the institution of government itself.

Bashing government was fashionably popularized with the Reagan presidency, and since then, demonizing Washington has become an accepted theme in much of mainstream political thinking.

For many decades there has been an organized, heavily financed and well-orchestrated attempt to denigrate government through vigorous criticism of central functions of the modern democratic state: social programs, corporate regulation and the taxes required to implement these objectives.

This assault has been a cleverly effective strategy because it taps into a traditional American mistrust of government, especially public resistance to taxation.

Current disdain for government, however, far surpasses the ordinary cynicism which many citizens express about this institution.

The intensely negative attitude directed toward Washington by the GOP's tea party element, in fact, is a classic example of what historian Richard Hofstadter once described as the paranoid style in American politics. Nearly 60 years ago, Hofstadter feared that an organized, active and shrill minority could create the kind of ugly political climate prevalent today.

This present, virulent form of political ideology is bolstered by corporate-dominated think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and Cato Institute, which disseminate a steady stream of propaganda extolling the philosophical economic values of their generous patrons.

The proliferation of a virtual army of Washington corporate lobbyists, coupled with the dramatic increase of conservative talk radio shows in recent decades, has also provided bountiful financing and media muscle, reinforcing the growth of the anti-government movement.

Frontal attacks on government have always served as an effective means of protecting both property rights and corporations from regulatory laws designed to safeguard the often-conflicting priorities of a broader public interest.

Excusing a failed laissez-faire economic philosophy, anti-government ideologues placed guilt for the 2007-08 economic meltdown and Great Recession on Washington. This maneuver enables them to absolve Wall Street of culpability for its complicity in financial fraud and reckless practice of speculative casino capitalism at the expense of the nation's economic stability.

Scapegoating government relies on delusional claims and manufactured distortions to deceive the public about who should bear primary blame for the country's sluggish economic condition.

To paraphrase political scientist Douglas Amy, diverting feelings of anger away from the corporate and financial sectors is a politically advantageous tactic for conservatives. Voter anxiety and frustration caused by downsizing, outsourcing jobs, low wages and economic insecurity can instead be focused entirely on Washington.

Critics of government are further motivated by their obsessive resentment over the success and popularity of established Washington programs like Social Security, Medicare, the Earned Income Tax Credit, unemployment insurance and a host of other enactments resulting in a greater degree of economic security for Americans.

As economist Paul Krugman has remarked, "Those who oppose government institutions are not sincerely concerned about the possibility that the system will someday fail; they're disturbed by the system's historic successes."

Admittedly, the U.S. Congress has become increasingly dysfunctional in recent years, but congressional impotency has, in large measure, been caused by the markedly rightward political drift of the GOP.

In their revealing book "It's Even Worse Than It Looks," congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein emphasize, "The Republican Party has become an insurgent outlier - ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise, unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition. When one party moves this far from the center of American politics," they conclude, "it is extremely difficult to enact policies responsive to the country's most pressing challenges."

Politicians who argue that "government is the problem" seriously undermine and weaken the very political institutions necessary to implement reasonable legislative solutions.

It's ironic that the patron saint of the Republican Party and its first president, unlike today's Romney-Ryan GOP, believed in an activist federal government which promoted the welfare of all citizens. In an 1861 address to Congress, Abraham Lincoln foresaw our government's role as one "whose leading object is to elevate the condition of men, to lift artificial weights from all shoulders, to clear paths of laudable pursuit for all, to afford all an unfettered start and a fair share in the race of life."

Nov. 6 offers the American electorate a watershed historical opportunity to reject the politics of extremism and resolve the long-debated argument over the proper role of government in modern society.

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Bruce Dudley lives in Paul Smiths and Camden, Del.

 
 

 

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