Allan Lichtman: Conservative Big Government ... Whither American Conservatism (Part 2)

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Mr. Lichtman teaches history at American University.]

Conservatism has always been about the purposes of government rather than the size or scope of government. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that George W. Bush has built a form a conservative big government during his presidency.

However, big government poses a serious political problem for conservatives because it contradicts their rhetorical defense of limited government, states’ rights, fiscal responsibility, and individual freedom. Conservative big government also differs from the liberal project of using government to reform society from the bottom up, funding welfare benefits, regulating business, empowering labor and minorities. The Bush administration began from the top down, subsidizing business and expanding its global reach, shielding corporations, and backing robust military, intelligence, and police forces. For decades, Republicans had complained of Democrats who created cadres of dependent voters: recipients of welfare and Social Security, members of federal employee unions and beneficiaries of affirmative action programs. Liberals, libertarians, and some conservatives charged that President Bush has created corporate dependents instead.

During Bush’s first term, federal spending grew by 17 percent in constant dollars, compared to 11 percent during Bill Clinton’s two terms. Discretionary domestic spending under Bush increased even more rapidly than total spending, “exactly the opposite of what was promised by Republican leaders when they first came to power in the 1990s,” wrote conservative fiscal analyst Stephen Moore. The federal government’s share of GDP rose to 19.9 percent in 2005, after declining from 22.1 percent to 18.4 percent during the Clinton years.

Conservative big government opened fissures between the wealthy and other Americans. Income inequality shot ahead at a record rate between 2002 and 2005, reaching levels unknown in America since the eve of the Great Depression. In 2005, the top 10 percent of earners collected 44.3 percent of income, compared to 32.6 percent in 1975 and about equal to the 43.8 percent in 1929. The top 1 percent collected 17.4 percent compared to 8.0 percent in 1975 and 18.4 percent in 1929.

New elements of conservative big government emerged in the second term. The administration confirmed in late 2005 that the president authorized the National Security Agency to wiretap Americans without warrants, bypassing requirements of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978. In July 2005, the administration won passage of an energy bill that subsidized big energy companies. The administration gained a renewed Patriot Act and the Military Commissions Act of 2006 that gave the executive branch authority to define persons, possibly including U. S. citizens, as “unlawful enemy combatants” who could potentially be detained indefinitely. Aliens who were defined as unlawful enemy combatants and were tried by military tribunals could be denied protections of the Geneva Convention against torture, habeas corpus rights to challenge their imprisonment, and safeguards against the use of coerced and secret testimony.

“Have Republicans become the party of torture, secret prisons, and indefinite detention?” asked libertarian author James Bovard in The American Conservative magazine, which Pat Buchanan had founded in 2002. “The new law – far more dangerous than the more controversial Patriot Act – is perhaps the biggest disgrace Congress has enacted since the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.”

Yet a new conservative leader would still depend on campaign contributions and other political support from corporate interests that would demand paybacks from government. Such pressures would pose once again the contradiction between the Right’s defense of free markets and its backing for corporate loans, subsidies, tax breaks, no-bid contracts, and other forms of special treatment from government. A new leader would be entwined in the dilemma of how to advance the conservative goals of protecting national security and upholding morality and decency in society without a large and meddlesome state that contradicted the Right’s defense of personal freedom and small government. The future of the conservative movement may well depend on whether the next Republican presidential nominee can find a way out of these dilemmas.

I await your thoughts.

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More Comments:

Kevin R Kosar - 11/30/2007

"Conservatism has always been about the purposes of government rather than the size or scope of government."

Oh? I'd like to see some substantiation for that claim.

Jason Blake Keuter - 11/30/2007

Conservatism has always been about limiting the power of government and has thus been a champion of limiting its size by observing strict constitutional limits on the available scope of its activities. American conservatism, in particular, is really about conserving liberal democracy from the threat of a big government. Big government has always grown by championing the rights of oppressed minorities within smaller, self-governing areas, and American history is no differrent - in other words, big government "liberals" have simply co-opted the philosophy of small government "conservatives".

Once you rob power from local governments and centralize it, it is inevitable that all of the local areas will then fight for control of that central government. Central government came into being predominantly representing left-wing philosophy, which was the ideology of the dominant class of what we might call blue state regions of a particular time. Once the central government obtained its power, any region or cultural tradition or philosophy that could no longer freely express itself, had to fight to make itself the dominant ideology of a centralized government.

Liberals thus cannnot argue that conservatives want to jam their view of the world down everybody's throats. It was the left that made big government and tried to jam its agendda down everyone else's throat. Had the left not centralized power in Washington, then the right would never have had to "take over" Washington. The real story is not a right-wing illiberal agenda; the real story is the centralization of power as a means of inflicting a left-wing agenda on those who don't believe it.

"Conservatism" will not whither because conservatives believe fundamentally in self-government.

Tim Matthewson - 11/25/2007

I suspect that the questions your rightly raise in the piece above and the questions previously raised about the religious right are important reasons why we have been hearing so much lately about Ronald Reagan. The 1980s were the halcion days of the conservative republican religious right and Ronald Reagan is the icon of the movement that began with Barry Goldwater in 1964 and triumphed with Reagan and experienced a smash up under the Bushes, especially 43. The conservative calls to return to the philosophy of Reagan and return to the issues of the 1980s has led to an intense debate about what was the philosophy of Reagan and what were the issues of the 1980s. One might think this would be an easy questions, but the decision to return to the good old days has provoked an angry war between factions of conservatives, each laying claim to being the legitimate heirs of Reagan and the '80s. Much like the Sunnis and Shias in Iraq, conservatives seem condemned the the 13th level of limbo and seem bound to perpetually debate in vociferous terms in a debate signifying nothing but sound and fury.