In an earlier piece for this paper I worried that today’s Republicans, in marshaling the language of political discourse, have wiped the floor with us progressives. Republicans coined “death taxes” to throw a pall on estate taxes and continue to mask the removal of public protections as “deregulation.” It turns out that the far right outshines the left in another language matter: the telling phrase.
Consider libertarian ideologue and strategist Grover Norquist’s pithy comment: “My goal is to cut government in half in 25 years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”
Or this, from Ronald Reagan: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”
Let’s hand it to them — hear these lines once, it’s hard to get them out of your head. Are there equally memorable phrases from the left? Maybe so, but Bill Clinton’s “I never had sex with that woman” won’t do.
The Reagan and Norquist quotations are more than catchy phrases, they’re also telling ones. And what they’re telling us can clarify our current seemingly perplexing and murky political crisis.
Shrink the government and drown it? So-called Movement Conservatives and far-right libertarians think that our country went off the tracks with FDR’s New Deal and with LBJ’s Great Society — programs meant to redistribute the nation’s wealth in ways that benefited “everyone.” From the standpoint of the super-wealthy on the far right, the federal government was muscling in on capitalism’s adequately functioning free market just to funnel resources from the propertied class to benefit everyone else. To them, this was not only a kind of robbery, but also an assault on liberty.
It wasn’t Democrats alone, by the way, ruining things with such redistribution schemes. Even Republican Dwight Eisenhower was in on it. Beyond his refusal to do away with Social Security, he spent huge federal sums on a public infrastructure project — the Interstate highway system. And what was the tax rate for high rollers in Eisenhower’s day? Ninety percent! In retrospect, I am happy to say that I like Ike, but they don’t make moderate Republicans like that anymore.
Sadly for Norquist and the far right, the majority of Americans don’t share the view that the nation’s big problem is big government’s propensity for big spending, not when such spending benefits everyone. Most of us, in any case, support the programs that big government spends big on — Social Security, the Centers for Disease Control, Medicare, Obamacare, NATO, interstate highways, the post office and so on.
In a nutshell, when Movement Conservatives and far-right libertarians try to put America back on what they consider the right track they come smack up against the wall of popular democracy.
So they have a problem: How can they get around popular democracy and avoid losing big at the polls? The answer can serve as a guide to the far right’s playbook over the past four or five decades: staggering amounts of political contributions, voter suppression and gerrymandering, race-baiting, and piggybacking on the issues of social conservatives to secure the votes of white evangelicals and the right-to-life supporters.
To this we must add Movement Conservatives’ considerable efforts to change how Americans think about government — which brings us back to that Reagan zinger: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.
Once people believe that government help is “terrifying,” they’re likely to go along with one of the right wing’s principal tactics for shrinking government — privatization, founded on the myth that government work is always shoddier than the private sector’s. The right wing promotes privatization for two reasons — first, it reduces government spending, meaning taxes go down. Secondly, it enables someone’s profit-making.
Nothing illustrates the far right’s efforts (and success) in reshaping how Americans think about government than the popularity of Fox News, the publicity arm (propaganda machine?) of the far right. In 2018, it was rated by Nielsen as the nation’s most-watched cable news show, with 2.4 million daily watchers in prime time.
How are things working out for the far right? Check out the composition of Mitch McConnell’s U.S. Senate. While the president continually distracts the attention of the nation with his flamboyant antics, the Senate quietly plugs away at the Movement Conservatives’ agenda, with trillion-dollar tax cuts, deregulation and judicial appointments vetted by the right-wing Federalist Society.
Now consider the following hypothetical description of Washington’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and see if you can spot what’s wrong:
The president invokes the Defense Production Act to resupply PPEs and mass produce coronavirus test kits on scale to serve the entire country;
National public health guidelines are issued covering mask use, travel restrictions, business and school closings and openings, and the like;
National Guard and federal troops are called up not to tear gas Black Lives Matter protesters but to equip no-fee COVID-19 testing sites in every Middlesex village and town;
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) are tasked with — and resourced to — develop a vaccine to be made available without charge to the public;
Ample federal funds are distributed to out-of-work employees, small-business owners, towns, cities and states to avert widespread economic collapse;
Health care and medical services are made available to everyone, regardless of citizenship status;
Previous tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans are rescinded to offset deficit-enhancing public expenditures.
What’s wrong with this picture? That it won’t solve the nation’s problem? Well, no. These actions might save us all. The problem is that every provision flies in the face of the far right’s program to save America. It’s “I’m from the government and I’m here to help” on steroids. It’s the opposite of bringing the country back to the days when big business’s friend Herbert Hoover was in charge. Anyone remember 1929 and how that turned out?
(Meanwhile, did someone leave the faucet running? I think the bathtub is slowly filling.)
Rod Kessler is a retired professor of English and writer living in Salem.