The Decline and Fall of American Conservatism
C. Bradley Thompson
In 1994, American voters elected Republican majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate for the first time in forty years. This ascent to power gave Newt Gingrich and his colleagues the opportunity to launch their â€śRepublican Revolutionâ€ť with its signature â€śContract with Americaâ€ť platform. The election was said to mark the end of an eraâ€”the era of big government liberalism that had dominated American political life since the New Deal. After struggling for almost half a century to gain political power, the conservative movement finally seemed to have reached the political promised land.
In theory, the â€śRepublican Revolutionâ€ť proposed to â€śrelimitâ€ť the powers of the federal government and to restore some of the basic principles and institutions of free-market economy. The preamble to the â€śContract with Americaâ€ť pledged to the American people that the GOP would put an end to â€śgovernment that is too big, too intrusive, and too easy with the publicâ€™s money.â€ť1 The political goals of the Gingrich â€śrevolutionariesâ€ť were not revolutionary in any meaningful sense, but they did promise to begin some necessary reforms. As a rule, the Gingrich Congress preferred less to more government controls.
In practice, the Republicans began to whittle away at the welfare state. Their first post-election budget proposed to eliminate three cabinet agencies (the Departments of Commerce, Education, and Energy) and more than 200 federal programs. Within a year, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives had reduced federal spending by almost $14 billion.2 Such early successes led even Bill Clinton to declare in his 1996 State of the Union address that the â€śera of big government is over.â€ť3 A Republican Congress passed and Clinton signed far-reaching welfare reform legislation that promised to end â€śwelfare as we know it.â€ť4
By the end of the 1990s, Americaâ€™s political fault line appeared to have moved considerably to the Right for the first time since the early 20th century. The advocates of limited government faced an historic opportunity to begin the process of dismantling the welfare state and deregulating the economy.
So how goes the Republican Revolution twelve years later? What is the state of the American political Right in 2006?
Judging by electoral results and political appearances, the Right is flourishing. For the first time since before the New Deal, the Republican Party controls all three branches of the federal government. There is a Republican in the White House surrounded by conservatives; Republicans control the House of Representatives and the Senate; and seven out of nine justices on the Supreme Court are appointees of Republican presidents. Republican grand strategist Karl Rove and several conservative pundits say that prospects look good for the GOP to become Americaâ€™s â€śpermanent majority.â€ť
It is not just Republicans but conservative Republicans who are driving this train. As William Rusher, co-founder of the modern conservative movement, reports, the â€śconservative movement has come to dominate the Republican Party totally.â€ť5 In other words, the Republican Party has finally purged itself of the moderate, non-ideological, country-club, Rockefeller Republicans that once dominated the party in the 1950s and â€™60s. The conservative momentâ€”the moment when conservative Republicans become Americaâ€™s ruling classâ€”has arrived.
For over forty years, ever since the Goldwater election debacle in 1964, conservatives have methodically pursued ideological control over the GOP. Now that they do control the Republican Party and all three branches of the federal government, what exactly have conservatives bequeathed to America?
Here are some hard facts. Government spending has increased faster under George Bush and his Republican Congress than it did under Bill Clinton, and more people work for the federal government today than at any time since the end of the Cold War. During Bushâ€™s first term, total government spending skyrocketed from $1.86 trillion to $2.48 trillion, an increase of 33 percent (almost $23,000 per household, the highest level since World War II). The federal budget grew by $616.4 billion during Bushâ€™s first term in office. If post 9/11 defense spending is taken off the table, domestic spending has ballooned by 23 percent since Bush took office. When Bill Clinton left office in 2000, federal spending equaled 18.5 percent of the gross domestic product, but by the end of the first Bush administration, government outlays had increased to 20.3 percent of the GDP. The annualized growth rate of non-defense and non-homeland-security outlays has more than doubled from 2.1 percent under Clinton to 4.8 percent under Bush.6
Increased spending inevitably means increased taxes. Thus, despite President Bushâ€™s much vaunted tax cuts, Americans actually pay more in taxes today than they did during Bill Clintonâ€™s last year in office. The 2006 annual report from Americans for Tax Reform, titled â€śCost of Government Day,â€ť sums up rather nicely the intrusive role played by Republican government in the lives of ordinary Americans. The report says that Americans had to work 86.5 days just to pay their federal taxes, as compared to 78.5 days in 2000 under Bill Clinton. In other words, the average American has worked 10.2 percent more for the federal government under George Bush than under Bill Clinton. When state and local taxes (controlled in the majority of places by Republicans) are added to federal taxes, Americans worked for the government eight hours a day, five days a week, from January 1 until July 12, meaning they worked full-time for the government for more than half the year. As Tom Feeney, a congressional Republican put it: â€śI remember growing up and reading in some school textbooks that if more than half your paycheck went to the government, then you were living in a socialist society.â€ť7 Just so, Mr. Feeney.
Two generations ago, conservatives denounced the growth of government and called for a revolution to roll back the Leviathan State created by Franklin Delano Rooseveltâ€™s New Deal. In 1994, conservatives, with their Republican Revolution, rode into power on just such a platform of limited government. Yet today, the conservative intellectual movement and the Bush administration are engaged in a very different kind of revolutionâ€”a revolution for big-government conservatism.
What happened to the idea of limited-government conservatism? Have the conservatives been corrupted by power, or is there something in their basic philosophy that has led them to embrace big government? Why have conservatives moved to the port-side of liberalism?
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