The Anti-Government Movement's Radical Agenda
The right’s agenda of massive tax cuts and program cutbacks is a radical one that is out of touch with the priorities of most Americans. Polls reveal surprisingly strong citizen support for government spending and public programs.
Anti-government activists like to portray their ideas as mainstream and claim to speak for the political aspirations of common Americans. They would have us believe that their vision of the minimal state is as American as apple pie – merely an extension of Americans’ traditional skepticism toward government. Americans have always disliked government, they say, and we are only following their lead. But once we get beyond this rhetoric and get a good look at the underlying ideas and goals of these anti-government zealots, it becomes clear that their views are far different from the political sentiments of most Americans. Their agenda is much more radical and their hatred of government goes way beyond the natural political cynicism that most citizens have about this institution. The anti-government movement is out of touch with mainstream America; and at its core, it is nothing less than a form of political extremism.
Out of Step with America
It is true that part of the American tradition is to distrust power and those who wield it – whether they are in government, corporations, churches, labor unions, or any large organization. This is all to the good, because power can be abused and needs to be kept in check. We need to constantly question our governmental leaders and we need to keep them accountable in order to ensure that they are responsive to our needs and that they spend our money wisely. But the views of the anti-government movement go far beyond this kind of healthy suspicion about governmental power – they actually hate government. They sometimes call it “the beast” or “the monster” – and actually consider it to be some kind of malevolent force in society. They demonize it, loathe it, and see it as the source of all of our problems.
Of course, all of us have probably said at times that we "hate" the government. But what we mean by that is usually very different from what these anti-government crusaders mean. We usually mean that we detest the particular politicians in power and/or that we hate the policies they are pursuing. So liberal Americans hate it when conservatives are in charge of government, and vice versa. In other words, we hate a particular government. But the anti-government right hates government in general – government itself. This is a very different and much more extreme view.
Similarly, these ideologues’ criticisms of government are also much more sweeping than the typical complaints about government voiced by most Americans. Consider, for example, the issue of wasteful government bureaucracies. Most of us strongly support efforts to cut the “fat” out of government bureaucracies and to make them more efficient. But for proponents of minimal government, this kind of reform is really beside the point. As one early icon of the anti-government movement, Barry Goldwater, explained it: “I have little interest in streamlining government or making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size.”1 And by “reducing,” they often mean lopping off entire agencies and programs. The conservative hit list of agencies that should be eliminated has at various times included the Department of Education, Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Commerce, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, plus hundreds of other small agencies and programs. They don’t want to cut fat; they want to cut meat.
Americans also sometimes have problems with government regulations. We can all probably identify at least a few regulations that seem particularly wrongheaded or burdensome, and we would certainly support changing or eliminating them. But many anti-government zealots condemn the legitimacy of government regulation itself. Some conservative legal scholars actually argue that the federal government has no constitutional right to regulate the workplace or the environment.2 And most libertarian-leaning conservatives would reduce regulations drastically – even those protecting our health and safety. Dick Armey, former Majority Leader of the U.S. House, seriously proposed that we eliminate half of all federal regulations. He didn’t specify which ones – he just seemed to know that half of them were unneeded. Another Republican House Leader, Tom DeLay, went Dick Armey one better and actually told a reporter that he could not think of a single federal regulation he would like to leave in place.3 Such irresponsible and extreme hostility toward consumer protection, environmental, health, and workplace regulations is clearly out of touch with mainstream America. Only a very small minority of Americans – less than 18% – say they want less government regulation of most industries.4