The resurgent interest in constitutionalism and sound economics within the Republican Party has been an encouraging sign. The debate within the conservative movement has advanced in a healthy direction thanks to the prodding of the Tea Party. Whether these moves by politicians were genuine or done out of pure survival purposes is still an open question, but the fact remains that the rhetoric has changed substantially during the post-Bush era.
One of the most demonstrable shifts has been the manner in which Republicans discuss the very institution of government. Our founders, in their rich understanding of private property and desire to zealously guard the liberties of the new nation’s citizenry, spoke of government in generally unflattering terms. While recognizing its presence in some restrained form was required, it was looked at as little more than a necessary evil. The notion of an income tax, federal welfare programs, corporate subsidies, and a fiat currency would have been abhorrent to the framers of the Constitution. In their minds, the main reason for a central government was national defense. The idea of government becoming a charitable institution was an aberration, as this was correctly viewed as the function of churches and individuals.
George Washington summed up these views when he stated that “Government is not reason. It is not eloquence. Government is force; like fire it is a dangerous servant — and a fearful master.” As recently as Ronald Reagan, our nation had a president who was well read in free market concepts and at least made an effort to relay these concepts to the country he served. “Government is not a solution to our problem, government is the problem,” the fortieth president famously said, strong words to a country that had become comfortable with New Deal and Great Society programs. But this reinforced a crucial point that conservatives forgot in the following years. The Ayn Rand and Jeffersonian view was banished, and government became something to be adored and used towards one’s own ends. It became the solution instead of the problem to many beltway Republicans, and they paid for it dearly in ensuing elections.
The philosophies of our current presidents reflect the attitudes a majority of Americans have come to hold toward government. During the Bush years, the force of government ceased being viewed in negative terms by Republicans, and instead was embraced. If one was unaware of the history and aims of conservatism, words spoken by men like Reagan and Goldwater would have seemed downright foreign in the initial years of this new century.
Unfortunately, it took a president like Barack Obama and a movement like the Tea Party to finally wake up a critical mass of conservatives. Not only is the government viewed as the solution by the Obama administration, it is touted as the savior and embodiment of all things virtuous. The combination of coercive force and worship of the state became embraced to a degree which even exceeded the previous administration, revolting millions of Americans who value the concepts of self government. Let us hope that eloquence and slick productions are no longer all it takes to make Americans forget that a government operating outside of the bounds of the Constitution is not their friend, but instead a fierce foe.
Barry Goldwater, icon of the post-World War Two conservative movement, summed up the genuine conservative’s mindset when he said: “I have little interest in streamlining government or in making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size. I do not undertake to promote welfare, for I propose to extend freedom. My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them.”
We know the conservative movement will never quite embrace the Obama version of rampant statism. But despite this, they had come pretty close in recent years, and are left with a major decision to make: will they settle and continue down the path of Bush-style, big government conservatism, or do they finally return to their Goldwater roots and begin stripping down the state to its constitutional size?
In essence, they must decide once and for all if government is a source of reason, or instead just a cleverly crafted form of brute force.