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Issue #19, Winter 2011
Enemies of State
First Principles: The Role of Government
Rick Perlstein
Arguments that salt-of-the-earth taxpayers were being done wrong by the vassals of something-for-nothing “tax-eaters” were easier to grasp when they came from charismatic communicators like Reagan, as opposed to, say, cork manufacturers, or even the real-estate agents down the street. The ease with which Reagan stirred union members into foot-stomping, anti-government frenzies startled media observers in 1966. They might have benefited from chatting with reporters on the labor beat, among whom, Thomas Evans observes, Reagan’s mentor Boulware “was reputed to understand blue collar workers better than anyone in the country.” Reagan also borrowed techniques from Dixie. The Republican strategist Lee Atwater described the state of the art with rare economy in a famous 1981 interview:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”–that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes.…You follow me–because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
Just the very act of advocating for adequate taxation, let alone any impulse to build the finest government in the world, is equated with a zero-sum expropriation–of liberty, of property, or both–from the tax-paying citizen to deliver it, demagogically, to some tax-eating “Other” responsible for disturbing the expectation of bourgeois order that is every citizen’s natural birthright.
It took the rise of the religious right to devise ways to transmogrify government into an active and existential evil in and of itself. In turn, however, an increasingly sophisticated Washington D.C.-based conservative movement has turned moralistic piety to serve the larger pro-business conservative cause in ways unimaginable to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 1928. In 1974, for example, fundamentalist preachers and housewives in Kanawha County, West Virginia, crusaded against allegedly “ungodly” textbooks assigned by the local school board. Such localized crusades against cosmopolitan governmental interference in the intimate realm of family life–forcing gay schoolteachers on children, gay rights ordinances in municipalities, striking religion from the public square–became routine in the 1970s. Also routine: Organizers from the Heritage Foundation in Washington descended upon West Virginia to link up the local activists with similar uprisings nationwide. In a feedback loop, conservative entrepreneurs fundraised nationally via direct mail by dramatizing the D.C.-intensified “local” outrages. The money raised by the likes of Richard Viguerie, the right-wing direct-mail pioneer who long described himself as an “anti-big business conservative,” was largely funneled into the same anti-government agenda championed since the rise of the administrative state over a century ago. In the fall of 2005, the Heritage Foundation quickly cranked out a series of position papers arguing that the failed response to Hurricane Katrina could largely be attributed to the rise of that selfsame administrative state.
In the minds of larger and larger segments of the public, government becomes an actively destructive force: always the problem, never a solution; and never, ever just the bugaboo of cork and power-turbine manufacturers who simply wish to make bigger profits any damned way they please. The latest attempt to abstract anti-government ideology from anything having to do with money: In the dominionist ideology of Republican candidates like Sharron Angle, government itself is construed as an ungodly false idol, violating the First Commandment by its very existence. The “monthly check to you” represented by Social Security is seen by more and more as instead a theft from the middle class; restraining it becomes conservatism’s gift to the middle class. The party of government itself, the Democratic Party, of its own, activist volition, passes a comprehensive health-care bill instructing the middle class that the federal government shall no longer just provide monthly checks to you for the rest of your life beginning when you are 65. It will require that you write the monthly checks to certain corporations that have now become generous protectors of middle-class interests, by official government mandate (though that must remain the subject for another essay).
Time marches on; the world turns. Conservatives, however, remain terrified. The black plague becomes a housepet by comparison. The libs plan to destroy us. Some things never change.
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ISSUE #19, WINTER 2011
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Susan Webster:
Maybe our country needs a depression or severe recession periodically so that the "average American" is touched by financial hardship and can see how social programs and legislation like the health care bill are necessary parts of our government. But then again I remember reading about one of those "average Americans" voicing her concern about how she didn't want the government to start running social security and mess it up. Would we still be a democracy if voting depended on having an adequate IQ?
Jan 23, 2011, 4:48 PM
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Rick Perlstein is the author of Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America.
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