The Economist featured a fanciful, if clever, cover on its July 28 issue featuring President Barack Obama and his likely Republican challenger Mitt Romney, dressed as Laurel and Hardy, with the headline, “Another Fine Mess: Big Government or Small? America’s Great Debate.” The newsweekly argued that this controversy captures what is, indeed, the central theme of the emerging presidential campaign, but contended thereafter that it is being addressed only superficially. The piece pointed out the blatant hypocrisy of Republican Party leaders in their ardent claims for small government, except in so far as federal spending and services favor Party priorities, including a notably unsuccessful “war” on drugs, huge defense appropriations, large tax expenditures for businesses and the wealthy and large allocations for an overcrowded prison system. The Economist also commented on the remarkable growth in federal spending, even in the face of sharply reduced revenues occasioned by steep tax reductions, particularly for the wealthy, under Republican President George W. Bush. The newsweekly noted, too, the sudden propensity of the GOP to care about those expenditure levels only when President Obama was elected to office. For their part, the magazine criticized Democrats for their intransigent unwillingness to allow change in any long-standing federal domestic programs.
While all of this strikes me as useful and even thoughtful, I am not persuaded the great debate of the emerging presidential campaign concerns the size of government, and for the very reasons the news magazine articulated. The Republicans have not demonstrated a serious willingness to tackle the programs driving national expenditure, including massive defense outlays, which exceed those of all other major western nations combined. Nor has the Party ever acknowledged that its members’ increasingly knee-jerk loathing of taxes accompanied by a willingness to reduce such claims, but not government expenditures (think of the Afghan and Iraq wars), is in large part responsible for the nation’s current fiscal dilemma. More to the point, as The Economist noted, the United States government has the deficit it does because Americans generally continue to exhibit a taste for public services without an accompanying willingness to pay for them, and the GOP stance neatly feeds that propensity. In short, it appears very likely that government will remain “large” (however one interprets that hoary chestnut), whoever gains election in November, but whether our elected leaders of both parties will be willing to pay the political costs of belt tightening (including raising necessary revenues), or overcome what have become ingrained patterns of ideological posturing on both sides of the aisle, remains to be seen. The signs that such might occur are surely not positive.
Instead, in lieu of a genuine debate about what we should address as a people and why and how, that is, instead of an extended and realistic conversation concerning what our government should address and why and how, we are witnessing a GOP-led attack on governance itself. Many Republican elected leaders have taken a “no tax” pledge authored and interpreted by an unelected anti-government zealot, Grover Norquist, who believes government to be the source of all social ills. And Republican leaders routinely attack taxes and taxation as somehow stealing funds from citizens (the “it’s your money” individualistic mantra) or constituting tyrannical acts, despite the fact that tax revenues provide a wide array of services, including the military, infrastructure and business incentives and are the price we pay for a robust commons. These are not the comments of individuals wishing to debate government’s reach, but of individuals attacking the idea of governance itself. These claims are coupled with the often egregious and outrageous, but nonetheless attention-getting cries of popular radical rightist radio and television personalities and online bloggers associated with the GOP, whose rhetoric daily delegitimates governance in favor either of the market or of no common claims on commerce or individuals. Meanwhile, and in lockstep, allied Republican leaders constantly attack government regulation as a pariah and “job killer,” even when those efforts are aimed modestly, for example, at limiting (not ending) continuing environmental degradation. Notably, none of this does anything to address the nation’s current fiscal ills or policy challenges.
And just as markedly, all of this argumentation is different from the nation’s perennial tussle between its parties regarding the appropriate role of government in Americans’ lives. In lieu of an argument of whether, how and at what cost government might act, we now find many GOP leaders and their associated mass media political entertainment figures (as my colleague rightly reminded me recently they, in fact, are) attacking governance per se as society’s greatest peril and ill. At least a share of our nation’s political leaders are no longer debating the size of government, superficially or not, but instead offering claims that governance itself is not to be countenanced in favor of a society dominated by those of means who can continue to receive government largesse while all others are asked to do without. The result produces a distributively indefensible outcome, to be sure, but it also increasingly places governance itself in jeopardy, a perilous situation for any would-be democracy. Ironically, The Economist mislabeled the disease, even as it correctly examined the dynamics of the malady in play.