By Dan Riker
"There will always be conflict. There will always be competing interests that force us to engage in the hard job of governing ourselves. And so the anti-government thing strikes me as a perversity. I don't think the founding fathers would recognize it. They were constructing a government of the people....
Once we start regarding it (government) as some alien that we can't control, we're done. Democracy's done. That's the last stage of walking away from the responsibility of governing ourselves. It we can't control it, if it is going to be a purchased government, if we can't institute the reforms that are necessary, then we're done. We're done right now."
- David Simon, Bill Moyers & Company, Feb. 14, 2014.[i]
"The cause of America is, in a great measure, the cause of all
"We have it in our power to begin the world over again."
- Thomas Paine, Common Sense, 1776
Throughout American history there has been constant tension between two competing theories of government: the Jeffersonian vision of an agrarian democracy of semi-autonomous states with the federal government limited primarily to providing national defense; and the Hamiltonian view of a vibrant industrial nation unified by a powerful central government. By and large, the Hamiltonian view won out, but now the nation's ability to meet the challenges of the 21st Century is threatened by a resurgence of support for something approximating the Jeffersonian view.
Abraham Lincoln's statement that government should do for the people what they need done but cannot do for themselves is particularly relevant to the mass, urban, society of 320 million people of 21st Century America. But now we are embroiled in the argument over the proper role of the national government that is blocking virtually all progress toward solving contemporary problems. Indeed, we have one of our two major political parties wanting to significantly weaken the federal government by limiting its scope and reducing its functions, leaving much to private enterprise, or to the states already so financially stressed many have reduced vital services. If the Republicans prevail, what would be the outcome?
University of Oregon economist Mark Thoma provides a succinct answer:
“(T)he private sector will not, on its own, provide the correct amounts of infrastructure, retirement security, health care spending, protection against monopoly and corruption, unemployment insurance, national defense, environmental regulation, education, food and drug safety, bank regulation, innovation, anti-trust action, safe working conditions, support of basic research, stabilization policy...”[ii]
Are these not necessary to a modern civilization? Are these what the people need to have done, but cannot do for themselves? If the private sector will not do them, or cannot do them, or should not do them, and the states cannot afford to do them, who can? The answer should be obvious, but to many it is not.
The arguments today over the proper role of the federal government in some ways seem no different from those between Jefferson and Hamilton, but there is a big difference between the opponents today. Even though Hamilton and Jefferson disagreed over the means by which it best could be achieved, those two shared with the other founders - the other authors of the American Dream - a vision of a nation that provided equality of opportunity and equality under the laws to all citizens, with no special privileges because of birth or wealth, and a nation that also protected the people from governmental violations of their basic rights, and personal freedom.
The opponents in today’s struggle over the control and direction of the national government no longer share that vision. The Party that ended slavery no longer believes in the Constitution's concept of equality of citizenship, or even in the social contract, the fundamental basis of democracy. The wealthy and the big corporations now control the Republican Party to obtain greater wealth as well as to protect themselves against regulation and higher taxes, which are needed to solve many of the nation's problems. There is little concern for the middle class and contempt for the poor.
Many of the largest corporations exhibit the worst characteristics of capitalism. They have little loyalty to the United States, or to the communities where they are located, or to their employees, who are viewed almost the same as they were in the Gilded Age, as interchangeable parts that can be thrown away and easily replaced. They are interested only in increasing profits, as fast as possible, at almost any cost, higher and higher stock prices, and greater compensation for their senior managements.
There is a class war and the rich and the powerful are winning. As a result, the “American Dream,” a notion of equality of citizenship, opportunity and basic freedoms for all, is in great danger.
Republicans oppose all efforts to help the poor, or to restore the economic security of the middle class. They want government largesse for themselves and their backers, but none for anyone else. They are perfectly content with the fact that most of the great fortunes made in the United States now held by their most important benefactors largely are due to government largesse, and/or the corruption of American governments. They continue to press for greater government benefits for rich and powerful established interests: More mining or drilling on federal lands, or offshore; permits for pipelines; lower taxes on the rich and on corporations; government subsidies through tax loopholes and benefits; suppression of unions; restrictions on voting; and reduction of financial and environmental regulation. They even seek to make the fundamental bedrock of democracy, free public education, another source of profit for private interests.
Their height of irresponsibility is that they oppose all efforts to combat climate change. They refuse to accept the scientific evidence of climate change, and its causes, probably for two major reasons: their fossil fuel sponsors are trying to block any controls on their industry and its pollution of the environment; and some of Republicans either are religious fundamentalists, or are beholden to religious fundamentalists, who have scientific and common sense-defying views of the world, its history and its origins.
Sen. James Imhofe (R-OK), who has strong backing from the fossil fuel industry, and now heads the Senate Environment Committee, wrote a book, The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future, [iii] that was published by one of the most extreme rightwing organizations, World Net Daily, through their book subsidiary, that argues, without any proof, that the entire climate change movement is an organized hoax among thousands of scientists around the world. His principal argument against the efforts to curb climate change is that it is an interference with God's work. In 2012 he said on a radio interview program:
Well actually the Genesis 8:22 that I use in there is that ‘as long as the earth remains there will be seed time and harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, day and night,’ my point is, God’s still up there. The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous.[iv]
What climate change scientists are saying is that at the present rate of increase the world's temperatures could reach a point when no actions could stop continuing warming, and at some point man could not survive on Earth. However, that does not mean that various kinds of plant life and other forms of life may not be able to live. Thus, Sen. Imhofe does not seem to realize - if he actually is being serious - that there is nothing inconsistent with what climate scientists are saying and what was written in Genesis 8:22. There is nothing in that passage that guarantees that man will survive "as long as the earth remains."
Republicans supposedly stand for conservative ideals of greater personal freedom, expanded economic opportunities, and free markets, but they are skillful in hiding the fact that they really don't. They have made millions believe the falsehood that they are the party of smaller government, lower taxes, and a stronger economy. Using the “Big Lie” technique of repeating untruths over and over until they are believed, they have been very successful in stirring up the suspicion of government that is in the DNA of Americans. They employ various techniques of “dog whistle” politics to ignite some of the nascent racism, nativism and misogynism in their base, unifying them into a major force of opposition to virtually all progressive programs, even though many of the poorer members of their base are, or would be, major beneficiaries of such programs.
Even though Republicans repeatedly describe the Democrats as the “tax and spend” party, Republicans have not been better managers of the economy than the Democrats. Republican Presidents since 1980 have increased the federal budget substantially more than the Democratic Presidents and six of the eight tax increases since 1980 occurred during Republican presidencies.
Reagan increased federal spending by 68%, from an annual budget of $678 billion in his first year to $1.143 trillion in his last. In George H.W. Bush's last year the budget had increased to $1.4 trillion, an increase of 23% in four years. During Bill Clinton's eight years, the budget increased 32% to $1.86 trillion. Then there was George W. Bush, who managed to nearly double the budget in his eight years to $3,5 trillion, an increase of 88.9%. In Barack Obama's six years, the budget has increased only 18% to $4.2 trillion at the end of 2014.[v]
The national debt under Reagan went from $997 billion in his first year to $2.86 trillion in his last, an increase of 186%. His deficits were dramatically larger than of any President since World War II. Instead of government revenues increasing as a result of the expected stimulus to the economy that his tax cuts were supposed to cause under the theories of the supply-side economists, revenues decreased, and did not recover until near the end of his presidency, after some tax hikes.
Even though Reagan's Republican successor, George H.W. Bush, was the last Republican President to increase taxes, he still increased the national debt in four years by 54%. In his eight years of enormous mismanagement in office, George W. Bush increased the national debt by 105%. It was $5.8 trillion in his first year and $11.9 trillion in his last, and the $1.4 trillion dollar deficit in his last year was the highest one-year deficit in the nation's history, even topping inflation-adjusted deficits during World War II.
By contrast, in his eight years in office, the Democrat Bill Clinton increased the national debt by only 31% and he had budget surpluses in his last four years. Barack Obama came into office at the height of the bank crisis and financial meltdown. Despite that, the increase in the national debt in his first six years has been only 49% and he has reduced the annual deficit from George W. Bush's last year by 65% to $492 billion.
Every one of the financial crises since 1900 that caused economic chaos in the nation occurred when Republicans held the Presidency. These include the Panic of 1907 that caused a huge recession and ultimately resulted in the creation of the Federal Reserve System, the Great Crash of 1929 that caused the Great Depression, and the bank crisis of 2008 that caused the Great Recession.
Republican economic policies of the past 30 years, which encourage companies to outsource to foreign countries, caused the losses of millions of jobs, most of them good-paying middle class jobs. Their tax cuts and their opposition to tax increases have caused the national government to be deficient of the revenue it needs to provide the services it has to provide.
The economy has grown better under Democratic presidents. Republicans have held the White House for 20 of the past 33 years and during those years the national economy grew a total of 52.5%, an annual average of 2.6%. In the 13 years Democrats have held the White House, the economy grew a total of 44.9%, an annual average of 3.2%.
Most of the federal government programs that have had the greatest benefit for the greatest number of people in the United States since 1900 were initiated during three brief periods: the Progressive period from 1901 to World War I; during Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, prior to World War II; and in the very brief time before Lyndon Johnson's presidency was destroyed by the Vietnam War in the 1960s. Most of the programs of those periods are enormously successful and popular. Most Americans today view food and drug regulation, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, and many more as essential government services.
Each progressive period began as the result of a calamity. However, in each case, the conditions were ripe for change. Two of the three progressive periods were set off by Presidential assassinations, of William McKinley in 1901 and of John F. Kennedy in 1963. The election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 was the result the Great Crash of 1929 and the resulting Great Depression.
Each calamity brought in a dynamic leader with his political party in complete control of Congress, and each was in a position to have progressive legislation supported and passed. The programs of these th4ree progressive periods have been enormously successful and of great benefit to the vast majority of the American people.
The Nixon, Ford and Carter presidencies, between 1969 and 1981, were full of crises, scandals and economic disruption that included high oil prices, near-record inflation, and high unemployment. Government seemed incapable of coping competently with the nation's problems, and someone came along who said the New Deal and liberal ideas no longer worked, that there was another way, and, by a small popular vote margin - but a landslide in electoral votes - the people bought that argument.
As it turned out, the radically conservative economic policies of Ronald Reagan - basically a return to the Social Darwinist “laissez-faire” policies of the Gilded Age - did not solve our problems. They made them far worse, but the extent of the damage only recently began to be fully realized. As with other periods of laissez-faire government, there was significant economic growth, but as with those other periods, the benefits of that growth went almost entirely to the rich and to the big corporations. While taxes on the rich were lowered dramatically, they actually increased on the middle class. The average hourly wage declined during Reagan's Presidency, and the huge movement of jobs out of the country began.
None of Reagan's successors significantly altered the nation's economic policies, and now we know that 30 years of these policies have hollowed out the middle class, increased poverty, created the greatest economic disparity in modern history, and weakened the economy of the nation, and, as a result, our security.
Barack Obama's slogan of "Change We Can Believe In," struck a powerful chord with millions of Americans. He did not bring the change he promised, and that has been disillusioning to many of his supporters, and has weakened the Democratic Party's appeal. But the fact that the people so clearly wanted change shows that we have reached another of those times in our history when the situation is ripe for change, and when change is necessary to our survival as a democratic capitalistic society.
The "common sense" answer to America's economic and political problems is obvious. There is only one type of government that will do what needs to be done: a progressive government. That can only come to pass if progressives take control of the Democratic Party and then win elections at all levels of government. Republicans must be driven out of office from the city council to the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.The opportunity exists once again, as it did in 1776, "to begin the world over again." The choice this time is better than it was in 1776. We do not have to have a violent revolution, but there is no guarantee we will not have one if the present course of the country is not altered. Peaceful change can occur, but it will take more than a political slogan, or one leader. This is not a campaign that can be fought once, in one election, with any expectation of lasting victory. A government run by progressives for an extended period of time on behalf of all the people will only come from a concentrated, long-term campaign that captures the minds and the hearts of the majority of Americans.
[i] Simon, journalist and creator of the HBO series, The Wire and Treme, was the subject of a two-part interview by Bill Moyers, the first part on Jan. 31, 2014 http://billmoyers.com/episode/david-simon-on-america-as-a-horror-show/ and the second part on Feb. 14, 2014, http://billmoyers.com/segment/david-simon-on-our-rigged-political-system/
[ii] Thoma, Mark. “For Obama, State of the Union Means State of the People.” The Fiscal Times, February, 12, 2013.
[iii] Imhofe, James. The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future. WND Books, 2012.
[iv] http://www.rightwingwatch.org/content/james-inhofe-says-bible-refutes-climate-change (accessed Jan. 23, 2015)