I don’t know about you, but I am sick to death of hearing about “Big Government.”
If we are to believe the Tea Party Republicans that were swept into power last week, President Obama and the outgoing Democratic Congress have significantly increased the size and scope of the federal government. Republicans are claiming their win Tuesday was a response from American voters against this “Big Government” takeover.
60 Minutes correspondent, Steve Kroft addressed this increased government argument in his interview with President Obama last night.
“The Republicans say the voters sent you a very clear message,” Kroft opened his interview, “that they want a smaller, less costly, more accountable government.”
Obama answered that Americans are understandably upset about “debts and deficits.” “I think that is absolutely a priority,” the president responded.
Yet, is the concept of “Big Government” really limited to only the federal debt and taxes?
Indeed, it seems conservatives hold a very narrow definition of so-called “Big Government.” When those on the Right invoke the specter of “Big Government,” they are generally referring to higher (or, at least the perception of higher) taxes and government spending. While these two issues make for effective Republican talking points, this narrow concept of Big Government ignores other far more chilling hallmarks of the phrase.
“We have always had Big Government in this country,” late historian Howard Zinn explained in a 2008 interview with the online, Real News Network (Oct. 23, 2008). “With a few exceptions… the government has always been in the service of the wealthy classes.”
So if we are to talk about Big Government, let us be all inclusive in our definition of the term.
Torture, extraordinary rendition and detention without due process are all classic hallmarks of Big Government. However, these horrific practices are not included in the Republicans’ definition of oversized government. And maintaining a “more accountable government” would require the U.S. to prosecute members of the previous administration for authorizing the use of torture in the first place. Again, one hears no calls from members of the Tea Party for such criminal accountability.
Government spying and warrantless wiretapping programs are also an aspect of Big Government. Under the guise of the “war on terror,” the Bush administration secretly (and illegally) monitored the emails and phone conversations of hundreds of citizens—often based on only the slightest evidence or suspicion. Indeed, it is difficult to find a more glaring example of the federal government literally intruding on the lives and private affairs of its citizens. Yet, Republicans were suspiciously silent when news of this clandestine program first broke in 2005.
Finally, a pre-emptive war based on lies and deliberate falsification of evidence (like the Iraq war) is perhaps the most frightening form of Big Government. But it was Republican President George W. Bush who used lies and propaganda to invade Iraq. For that matter, the United States’ long history of pre-emptive war and military dominance is never included in Republican accusations of Big Government.
“It’s interesting,” Zinn goes on, “when they say, ‘we must not have big government’ they don’t talk about the military, which is the biggest government of all.”
As Zinn observes, Big Government is not always necessarily a bad thing, either. He cites Social Security, the New Deal benefits and the GI Bill of Rights (which allowed him to pursue his PhD in history) as positive government-administered programs of social uplift.
“So forget about your argument against Big Government,” Zinn says. “It’s obvious we need Big Government.”
Well, we need more of the good kind, anyway. But let's not be so selective when talking about this idea of "Big Government."