The Stupidity Behind Republican “Small Government”

Clete Wetli | February 26, 2020 | Opinion Article

For decades, Republicans have echoed the supposed virtues of “small government” by relentlessly claiming that the private sector can magically do everything better and that anything associated with the government is somehow rife with waste, fraud, and abuse. It’s their central rationale behind opposing taxation in general and the key to their rhetorical axiom of “pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps” in their misleading caricature of modern conservatism. 

The talking points have become an almost religious chant. Big government is bad. Taxes are evil. Government programs are inherently inefficient or ineffective.

Well, except the military because, you know, ‘Mericuh and apple pie and all that. So what if military spending keeps rising even as the Pentagon continues to fail financial audits? Ironically, big military is okay with Republicans who eagerly ignore any waste, fraud, and abuse that may be within it. 

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It’s been one of the driving forces behind Trump’s wholesale denigration and destruction of government institutions and norms.

So, as the world braces for the impending pandemic of coronavirus, it’s worth noting that Trump cut the budget to the CDC programs in 2018 that is responsible for dealing with these types of crises. In fact, his administration reduced national health spending by $15 billion and got rid of the $30 million Complex Crises Fund.

It’s a major talking point from folks like U.S. Senate candidate and AL Rep. Bradley Byrne whose campaign website talks about “eliminating wasteful programs and agencies” and advocates “getting government out of the way”. That’s code for his apparent support of bad ideas like Trump gutting the Clean Water Act and, generally, Trump’s categorical disregard for the rule of law in matters that don’t align with his political agenda of benefiting the rich.

In fact, this love of “small government” is a theme that’s almost universal on Republican campaign websites like Senate candidate, Tommy Tuberville. Republicans know that their constituents eat this stuff up. Even the ones who are receiving government assistance just to survive. You see, they deserve it because they were forced to pay those awful taxes, but everyone else is just abusing it or getting a free ride. It’s nothing more than a perverse extension of the malign myth of the “Welfare Queen” that Reagan infamously introduced into the political discourse decades ago.

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The stupidity of the “small government” talking point is that it improperly correlates size with effectiveness. The relentless Republican demonization of government has had profoundly negative consequences on voter participation and turnout. It causes people to withdraw from civic engagement because it makes them cynical and feeling as if their vote simply doesn’t matter. Further, this malign and deliberate mischaracterization of public service and government has led to a popular, but the very dangerous notion that inexperienced “outsiders” can fix a “broken” system. 

Unfortunately, these extremist Republican ideologues aren’t “fixing” the government, they’re dismantling it and destroying beneficial programs and agencies that benefit all of us. 

In Alabama, it’s the root cause of why we have a crisis in our prison system- it’s the result of perennial underfunding and understaffing. The same is true with public education, transportation, healthcare, and mental health treatment. 

Democrats have to be stronger in rejecting the delusional narrative that all government and public service is incurably dysfunctional or corrupt. Unfortunately, we’re about to find out why defunding the CDC was a very stupid move.

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Excessive taxation and government regulation isn’t the answer, either. However, the time has come to fight against those who think that arbitrarily cutting funding or staffing will magically lead to higher effectiveness. 

Let’s be real- gutting environmental protections is stupid. Eliminating FDA regulations on meat inspections is a recipe for disaster. Yet, there’s a long and exhaustive list of regressive Republican efforts to damage programs, agencies, and policies that work to keep us safe and free. Frankly, it is stupid. It’s time that Democrats clearly call it what it is.

Clete Wetli is former Chair of the Madison County Democrats and a liberal political activist.

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