On the Fourth of July, I feel compelled to note that big government plays a glorious role in our country’s rich history.
I don’t venture into politics often here, because my focus is on journalism and media issues. But this is an area where our media’s practiced neutrality — which Jay Rosen calls the View from Nowhere — ill serves our readers and our country.
For all of my adult life, I have heard conservative politicians who wrap themselves in the flag rail against our government, ignorant or ignoring the fact that the flag itself stands for a system of big government.
July 4 might not be the perfect day to discuss our nation’s tradition of big government, but we don’t have a holiday celebrating the Constitution, which was our ultimate embrace of big government and rejection of the chaos of small government.
You might think of Independence Day as a blow against big government. The Tea Party invokes our founders, with their talk of tax revolt and their silly tri-corner hats. Of course, they’re way off-base. The rallying cry of the American Revolution was “taxation without representation,” and all Tea Party members have representation in Congress, unless they live in the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico or Pacific territories.
To an extent, it’s undeniable that the Declaration of Independence was a rebellion against taxes and the king’s big government. But read the actual Declaration, the document we celebrate today. The first several grievances our founders had against King George were that he interfered with their attempts to govern themselves. A couple of examples:
He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
Our founders wanted effective government and a primary reason they rebelled against British rule was that King George was not allowing their governments to operate. They wanted a powerful government, but they wanted one that represented them and respected their rights. While the Declaration offered a split view on big government, the Constitution was a clear and lasting exercise of big government.
The Articles of Confederation, which governed the United States from 1781 to 1789, were a small-government framework, vesting most power in the states rather than a central government. That was a failure, and the Constitution was an unambiguous effort to bring effective, large government to the new nation, with some enumerated powers and responsibilities and with some important checks on its power.
The Preamble envisions a broad role for government:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
But the Constitution was not just a one-time embrace of big government. Each of the presidents we celebrate on Mount Rushmore gained his place in history by exercising the power of a big government. Again and again in our country’s history, including our biggest conflicts and milestones, big government has prevailed over the forces of chaos, timidity and selfishness in conflicts and governing decisions, and our nation is better for it:
- Thomas Jefferson’s audacious acquisition to expand the nation in the Louisiana Purchase allowed us to develop into the coast-to-coast nation we are today.
- Our most severe conflict, the Civil War, was rooted in conflicts between big government (“Union” was the term used at the time) and states that wanted to go their own way.
- Teddy Roosevelt extended the federal power to preserving national treasures in the National Parks.
- Big government built our transportation infrastructure, the transcontinental railroad in the 19th Century and interstate highways and a national aviation system in the 20th Century.
- During the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Congress created Social Security and other elements of a safety net to care for our elderly and poor and to protect our financial system. They were to promote the general welfare in times of economic stress.
- Government assured the enforcement of civil rights, sending federal troops into Southern states to ensure integration of schools and universities.
- The federal government extended its responsibility to promote the general welfare into environmental protection, cleaning up the smoggy skies and foul waters of the 1960s.
Big government isn’t always perfect. The westward expansion set off by the Louisiana Purchase unleashed genocide on the tribes inhabiting those lands. In the internment camps of World War II and the Guantanamo Bay detention camp of today, our government has engaged in shameful abuses of its power.
Just as the founders were wise to create a strong government and give it the power to govern effectively, they were wise to check the government’s powers in the Bill of Rights.
Big government is not a function of either party. Republicans such as Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and George W. Bush have exercised government’s power in new ways, just as Democrats FDR, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Barack Obama have.
Since the days of Ronald Reagan at least, conservatives have been loud in their condemnation of government (except when they want to use it to regulate personal lives in areas such as abortion or sexual orientation). Liberals fight back on particular issues but have been too timid to speak out in favor of government itself.
Journalists too often simply cover the debates and the statements. Fact-checking journalists tend to fact-check specific statements, rather than broad philosophies, such as the odd conflation of patriotism and condemnation of America’s government. I wish we’d call out that lie more often. I think the Fourth of July is a good day to do that.
Go ahead and wave the flag today. But understand that it represents a long and mostly proud history of big government.