Which party really wants to 'get government off our backs'?
We must "get the government off the backs of the people," declared Ronald Reagan during the presidential campaign, building on the common belief that the Democrats favor active government and the Republicans private initiative. Yet it was Jimmy Carter who had pushed for the decontrol of the trucking industry while Ronald Reagan was embraced by company executives and teamster officials seeking to preserve regulations that benefit large concerns and big labor at the expense of independent entrepreneurs. and it was Reagan who gained enthusiastic support from leaders of the "evangelical right" whose goals included an expansion of government power to prohibit abortions, control obscenity, suppress homosexuals, and quash left-wing dissenters.
These crosscurrents of presidential politics suggest that government activism can serve a variety of disparate purposes and that neither party can uniquely lay claim to either a pro-or an antistatist tradition.
During the 1830s, Andrew Jackson gave unity and purpose to the emerging Democratic Party through his staunch opposition to government policies that would strengthen the interests already ascendant in the private domain.
While Jackson railed against "grants of monopolies and exclusive privileges," Henry Clay, leader of the Whig opposition, proposed an "American system" of tariff barriers to imports, a strong national bank, and government-sponsored programs of internal improvements. Clay called for a partnership between business and government, insisting that any privileges incidentally granted to private interests would ultimately benefit all Americans through their participation in an advancing economy.
The Republican Party continued this Whig tradition of deploying state power to nurture the growth of commerce and industry. Nineteenth-century Republicans sponsored protective tariffs, land grants to railroads and developers, federal aid to the transcontinental railroad, and river and harbor improvements. Republicans also led efforts to use government as an agent of moral reform, supporting measures such as Sunday blue laws, the prohibition of alcohol, an anti-obscenity legislation. The GOP's activism, moreover, extended to protection of black rights during Reconstuction, economic regulation under Theodore Roosevelt, and government cooperation with business during Herbert Hoover's tenure as secretary of commerce for Harding and Coolidge.
Although Democratic remained suspicious of government initiative through much of the 19th century, by the 1890s they came to advocate national programs for expanding the currency, tightening controls over railroads, and arbitrating disputes between management and labor. Twenty years later, Democratic President Woodrow Wilson followed the precedents set by Theodore Roosevelt for expanding the federal role in steering the economy and regulating the excesses of business.
During the Great Depression, the Democrats became the nation's dominant party as Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Dealers pioneered the rise of a state more actively committed than ever before to securing the welfare of individuals, supervising business, and guiding the economy.
If Republican activism shriveled after 1929, the party's restraint never came to include opposition to cooperative arrangement between government and private enterprise or to government controls over the lifestyles of individuals. Republicans of the contemporary era have predominantly supported federal regulations protective of corporate interests, special loans and tax breaks for business, and lucrative contracts for defense firms. They have also favored tightening restrictions on allegedly disloyal forms of expression and enforcing moral rectitude through government decree.
During the recent campaign Ronald Reagan proposed cutting taxes and asked for a rewriting of "thousands of regulations" that constrained business initiative. But he failed to endorse the decontrol of specific industries, advocated vast new military projects, proposed tax subsidies for corporations, and denounced the promotion of competition through antitrust enforcement. He also supported an antiabortion amendment, and suggested freeing federal agencies from restraints on the surveillance of individuals.
We need to monitor carefully the actions of our new president, and his advisers, making sure that the slogan of getting government off the backs of the people does not become the reality of getting the government off the backs of privileged interests at the expense of our common concern for protecting the environment and ensuring the health and safety of workers. And we need to be aware of the possibility that this allegedly antistatist president may join in the crusade to expand government control of personal expression and choice of lifestyles.