I deliberately made the title of this post a bit provocative because I want to make it clear exactly what I mean, and how damaging I think the late 20th century swing to the crazy right of the U.S. political system has been. But I’m not just doing it to attack the Tea Party or the Ayn Rand followers. Their influence has peaked and is now in steep decline. Pretty soon the Tea Party won’t be large enough to hold a real Tea Party, with teacups and saucers.
I’m much more concerned with the extent to which the Democratic Party has accommodated the “small government” mythology, and how to draw a line in the sand and move forward. The Democrats, the party which should have continued to be the party which represents the interest of the poor and the disenfranchised, allowed the Right to set the narrative for nearly thirty years.
When I was in my early teens in the 1960s, I read all Ayn Rand’s books. It makes sense that Rand would attract many intellectually curious teens. Her works were pulp fiction, with larger than life heroic characters, consistently evil villains, and very little grey area. They were crudely drawn, but they presented ideas beyond the sword and sorcery novels which were the alternative pulp reading for teen-aged boys. I didn’t really think much at that time about how her views on the sacred nature of property rights and her thorough rejection of compassion and altruism would play out in a real world which was much messier, with many more complex moral issues than the cartoon world of her books. At fourteen years old I had enough issues going on in my own life without developing a sense of nuance.
By the time I was eighteen or so, I began examining poverty and race, the role of money and corruption on the political system, and a host of other things for which laissez faire didn’t have an answer, and began moving steadily to the left. The Civil Rights movement was unfolding all around me, so I saw the role the federal government was playing in enforcing social justice in the face of resistance by local reactionaries. That was as much as I needed to learn about the proper limits of state’s rights.
As I was moving leftward the political landscape in the U.S. seemed to be moving rapidly rightward, due to a backlash driven by white reaction to the Civil Rights and antiwar movements, Nixon’s Southern Strategy of drawing the segregationist Dixiecrats into the GOP, and Lee Atwater’s strategy of building a disciplined right wing coalition with the use of “wedge issues”.
As the Right gained more power and undermined the programs set up with the New Deal and War on Poverty, the Democratic Party largely became “GOP LIte”, putting forward the notion that the abstract principle of “small government” was a Democratic Party principle, too, and often implying that the Democrats didn’t really care about the poor, the sick, immigrants, the environment or the rights of workers any more than the GOP did.
Now that Tea Party over-reach and the sheer force of changing demographics have damaged the GOP, the Democratic Party is in a very good position to stake out a claim to being the progressive, compassionate party, dedicated to social justice.
To do this we have to come to peace with several conclusions.
1) “Small government” is an idiotic goal in a nation of 312,000,000 people. We should avoid unnecessary and stifling bureaucracy, but the government is going to be large, complex, and expensive, no matter who we elect to power. The GOP’s inclination is to use government for military adventures, bedroom policing, and “wars” on drugs, the Democrats (when they are behaving as Democrats) for social programs, but neither party is trying to move toward “small government”. The question isn’t size of government, but what the government is actually doing.
2) Altruism and compassion is a good thing, and in fact the only way to promote social peace in a huge, diverse population. The Ayn Rand/Tea Party notions of “rugged individualism” are about as meaningful as your average Chuck Norris movie. Fun in a lowbrow sort of way, but limited in their ability to solve problems on a wider scale. Helping each other is not only the right thing to do, but it brings about social stability to everyone’s benefit.
3) The government has a large role to play in a wide variety of aspects of our lives, from ensuring that minority rights are protected, to aid in disasters, both large scale and personal. Rightwingers often say “but not with MY money”. Well, I didn’t like paying for Bush’s war in Iraq either. We can argue about how much money goes into what programs, but the issue of whether helping people out in times of need is a valid government function is off the table. Tea Partiers can gripe about it over their Chik-Fil-As, but health care, the environment, poverty, and minority rights are all valid and legitimate government roles.
Summed up, there is a lot to discuss regarding which approach to issues like poverty and the environment have the most efficacy. But as far as I’m concerned the question of whether or not the government has a direct and important role in solving these problems is not negotiable, and I don’t think it should be for the Democratic Party at large.