Albion Monitor /Commentary

Demonizing Government: The Right's Tired Theme

by Randolph T. Holhut

(AR) -- Two heavy hitters in the world of conservative journalism, William Kristol and David Brooks, put forth the following question in a Wall Street Journal column a couple of weeks ago: "How can Americans love their nation if they hate their government?"

The column, titled "What Ails Conservatism," stated that "an American political movement's highest goal can't be protecting citizens from their own government" and "a conservatism that organizes citizens' resentments rather than informing their hopes will always fall short of fundamental victory."

Even a blind pig can sniff out an acorn every now and then. But to read the words of two guys who Republicans actually listen to question the fundamental tenet of the GOP -- that the federal government is evil -- is still a shock.

In the world view of the conservatives, government is evil if it doesn't benefit the wealthy
House Speaker Newt Gingrich has often spoken about ridding America of "the nanny state." He won't tell you that the congressional district he represents, Georgia's Cobb County, receives more federal subsidies than any suburban county in America. The only two places that get more are urban Arlington, Va. (right next to Washington D.C.) and Brevard County, Fla. (home of the Kennedy Space Center).

The biggest employer in Gingrich's district is Lockheed-Martin, the aerospace firm that was rescued from bankruptcy by the Federal government in the 1970s. Lockheed-Martin, a company that would not exist if not for massive federal military spending, is designing the F-22 advanced tactical fighter and other military aircraft.

Nearly three-quarters of Cobb County's workforce are in white collar jobs such as insurance, electronics, computers and trade -- all of which, including Lockheed-Martin, are protected from market discipline by a government that lavishes money on the rich while offering lectures on responsibility and morality to the "undeserving" poor.

Then there is Senator Phil Gramm of Texas, one of the GOP's leading self-righteous hypocrites. Nothing raises Gramm's ire more than "wasteful" federal spending (translation: money that isn't spent to benefit the wealthy). The next time you hear Gramm talk about the evils of big government, remember this critique of Gramm's anti-government hypocrisy from Washington Monthly editor David Segal:

"The government helped bring him into this world (he was born in a military hospital), funded his upbringing (his father was an Army master sergeant), paid for him to attend private school (with the GI insurance money Gramm's mother received when her husband died), even picked up the tab for graduate school (thanks to a National Defense Fellowship). After getting his Ph.D., Gramm got a job at Texas A&M, which is state-run, was elected to the House of Representatives, and then to the Senate. In sum, Phil Gramm joined the government rolls the first day of his life and has never left."

In the world view of the conservatives, government is evil if it doesn't benefit the wealthy. Think I'm exaggerating? Look at some of the social welfare programs they've gone after in the past few years -- school lunches, welfare, housing subsidies, Medicaid, legal services. Just about every government social welfare program has been targeted for sharp cuts or outright extinction.

Now look at some of the things that the conservatives support -- increased tax exemptions for gifts and estates, capital gains cuts, reduced regulations for the protection of health and safety standards, investment subsidies, increased defense spending. There's not much here that benefits the average person.

It does not take a lot of effort to see through the hypocrisy of Gingrich, Gramm and the rest of the conservatives. Anyone who believes that they are on the side of anybody but the wealthy is merely deluding themselves.

Pundit George Will described the Right's ultimate goal quite accurately a couple of years ago: to turn the clock back to 1900. The GOP may beat the Millenium Bug to the punch.

Most folks still want safe workplaces, food that's untainted and edible, medicine that won't kill them, protection against involuntary poverty at any age, schools that aren't decrepit or overcrowded and a transportation system that works
But how many of us want to return to that golden age before the minimum wage, before the eight-hour work day, before child labor laws? How many want to go back to a time when union membership would get you fired, jailed or murdered and the life expectancy of the average American laborer was about 45? Who wants a reprise of an age when adulterated food and medicine was sold in our markets and pharmacies, when being poor or homeless was a criminal offense, when the middle class did not exist?

This was America, circa 1900. It could be America in the next century if the conservatives have their way. The welfare state will be dismantled, except for the wealthy. Corporations will be able to operate without having to worry about labor or environmental regulation. The values of the marketplace will reign supreme.

If you are hungry and homeless, if you are sick or disabled, if you are out of work and have a family to support -- too bad. No one has a right to food, shelter, medical care or a decent job and if you disagree, we'll throw you in jail. Conservatives don't want to be bothered with compassion, decency and fairness as they go forward into the past.

Not everything government does is perfect. But the record is clear. Look at the history of this century and you will realize how much the federal government changed the lives of average Americans. The conservatives can howl all they want about the evils of big government and the wonders of self-reliance and personal responsibility. But most folks still want safe workplaces, food that's untainted and edible, medicine that won't kill them, protection against involuntary poverty at any age, schools that aren't decrepit or overcrowded and a transportation system that works.

The private sector did not accomplish these things. It was not the magic of the marketplace. It was government -- the primary way that a civilized people comes together to work for the common good. No matter how much the conservatives try to demonize government, that fact can never be challenged.

Randolph T. Holhut is a freelance journalist and editor of "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books)

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Albion Monitor October 13, 1997 (

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