The idea that the Republican Party is in favor of “small government” has never made sense. Consider the billions of dollars spent on our armed forces and the budgets of the FBI, CIA, NSA, etc. Republicans have never claimed we spend too much on those parts of the federal government (at least until their cult leader became the target of criminal investigations). Consider Republican-backed government surveillance of the civil rights and anti-war movements. And massive subsidies toward favored industries, like oil and gas. Do Republican governors refuse to accept assistance from the federal government after natural disasters?
Two of the best political columnists working today recently wrote about the “small government” myth. First, from Jamelle Bouie of The New York Times:
In the conventional view, American politics is a contest between a party of “big” government and a party of “small” government.
You know the clichés. Democrats want a larger role for the state; Republicans want to “drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”
But a glance at the historical record shows that, at least in the postwar period, the size of government was never really the issue. A modern state needs a large, active government. The real political question revolves around the activity itself. It’s about both the scope of government — to whom and for what it should provide — and its reach. Will the state take a light touch, or will it intrude on and control the lives of its citizens?
… The Republican Party has a clear, well-articulated agenda. It just falls outside the usual categories. It’s not that today’s Republicans have a vision for “big” government or “small” government; it’s that Republicans have a vision for intrusive government, aimed at the most vulnerable people in our society.
Of course, the crown jewel of the Republican effort to build a more intrusive, domineering government is the set of laws passed to ban or sharply limit abortion, regulate gender expression and otherwise restrict bodily autonomy. These laws, by their very nature, create a web of state surveillance that brings the government into the most private reaches of an adult’s life, or a child’s.
From Paul Waldman of The Washington Post:
Let’s take one example that [congressional] Republicans are getting ready to propose: the imposition of “work requirements” for the tens of millions of Americans who rely on Medicaid for health insurance or food stamps to feed their families. If you’re looking for big government, work requirements are it.
The idea has intuitive appeal: It’s good for people to work, right? But in practice, requiring “work” means forcing people to continually document their work hours to the government. Imagine getting your boss to sign time sheets once a month to prove you were working, then uploading them to the state using a buggy website. Now, imagine you didn’t have a computer at home. And if you didn’t follow all the complicated instructions, you could lose health coverage, a constant threat keeping you up at night.
You might feel as though the government was looming awfully large in your life even as it was being stingy with benefits. Which is happening now around the country; just read this article about how Iowa is spending millions to create a new bureaucratic maze for food-stamp recipients to navigate. If they fail to jump over all the hurdles, they’ll lose their benefits.
That is how work requirements have always functioned: They’re a tool to kick lots of people off their health coverage or their food assistance…. They’re the opposite of small government; they create more bureaucracy as a means of making the lives of poor people, who have less of a voice to begin with, even more difficult.
Now, let’s consider some of the other things Republicans have been doing lately:
- Making it illegal for women to get abortions in Republican-run states, including trying to ban minors from traveling to another state to get an abortion
- Trying to stop women in every state from accessing medication abortions
- Outlawing medical care for transgender youth that their parents want for them
- Outlawing medical care for transgender adults
- Banning drag performances
- Banning websites Republican legislators don’t like
- Banning books from schools and public libraries
- Forbidding discussions of systemic racism in schools and universities
- Banning diversity efforts in higher education
- Attempting to make it illegal for fund managers to consider environmental, social and governance goals in some investment decisions
- Making it unlawful for liberal cities in conservative states to pass their own laws according to their residents’ wishes
- Going after individual companies that don’t toe the conservative line
… A party that actually believes in “limited government” doesn’t tell you what you can read, what you can say, what clothes you can wear or what medical care you can get.
There’s a good case to be made that the [Republican Party] never really favored limited government; it has always been an idea Republicans apply only to goals and purposes they don’t like in the first place, just as they only begin complaining about the deficit and debt when Democrats are in power….
Spending money isn’t the only thing that makes government “big”. Today’s Republicans have a vision of a government that provides fewer social services but is vastly more invasive in everyone’s lives. You can call it many things; just don’t be fooled into thinking it’s small.
Back to Mr. Bouie:
Not everyone is subject to the Republican vision of intrusive government. There are vanishingly few limits in most Republican-led states on the ability to buy, sell, own and carry firearms. And working on behalf of some employers and other business interests, Republicans in at least 11 states have taken steps to loosen limits on the ability of children to work in factories, meatpacking facilities and other such places.
When it comes to the demands of capital or the prerogatives of the “right” kind of Americans, Republicans believe, absolutely, in the light touch of a “small” government that stays out of the way. But when it comes to Americans deemed deviant for their poverty or their transgressions against a traditional code of patriarchal morality, Republicans believe, just as fervently, that the only answer is the heaviest and most meddlesome hand of the state.
This gets to one of the most important truths of political life. At times, the state will treat different groups in different ways. For those of us with more egalitarian sentiments, the goal is to make that treatment as fair and as equal as possible. For those whose sentiments run in the other direction, the task is to say who gets the worst and most degrading aspects of the state’s attention and who gets its [respect].
… There is limited government in these conservative states, as long as you live the way Republicans want you to live.
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