Republicans struggle to reboot their 'small government, personal responsibility' scam

Republicans struggle to reboot their 'small government, personal responsibility' scam
Credit: Gage Skidmore

Joe Scarborough, on his morning TV show, had a roundtable with George Will and David Frum in which these three old conservative war horses discussed the possibility of the Republican Party returning to its "conservative values."


Those values they identified included balanced budgets, personal responsibility, and small government. It's important for Americans to understand what conservatives mean when they use these words.

"Balanced Budgets": Back in the 1970s, Jude Wanniski, then a Republican strategist, wrote an OpEd for the Wall Street Journal in which he proposed the "Two Santa Clauses Theory."

Wanniski pointed out that the Democratic Party, since 1933, had been the Santa Claus party. They gave Americans Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, long-term unemployment insurance, food stamps, college loan and tuition support, federally guaranteed mortgage assistance, regulation of banks, food and drugs to protect consumers, etc. Republicans opposed every single one of these initiatives.

Wanniski said that Republicans had to figure out how to become Santa Claus, too, and suggested that Republicans should become the "tax-cut Santa Clauses."

When Republicans are in office, the strategy goes, they should run up the debt as hard and as fast as possible, principally using tax cuts for rich people to do it. When Democrats come into office, Republicans should yell and scream about the importance of having balanced budgets to force the Democrats to cut social program spending, thus forcing Democrats to shoot their own Santa Claus.

Reagan was the first Republican president to aggressively use this strategy, tripling the national debt from about $800 billion to over $2 trillion in just eight years. He ran up more debt in those eight years than every president of the United States all the way back to George Washington, combined. And, of course, when Bill Clinton came into office, Republicans started screaming about the budget deficit, and Clinton took the bait, "ending welfare as we know it" and cutting back on a variety of other social programs.

"Personal responsibility": This is an old trope that white supremacists have been using since the failure of Reconstruction.

They argue that African-Americans are less successful in America because they fail to take "personal responsibility" for their lives, a convenient slogan that lets them completely ignore the racism structurally built into America's political, economic, and cultural systems.

It also makes it convenient for them to ignore the plight of poor white people trapped in dying parts of America like Appalachia. Or struggling with issues of mental health or addiction.

After all, if people are always "personally responsible" for their own circumstances, why should we bother doing anything about homelessness, poverty, hunger, addiction, or the struggle that racial, religious and gender minorities face in achieving the American dream?

"Small government": Ever since Republican Warren Harding was elected president in 1920, the Republican Party has used the phrase "small government" as a euphemism for cutting taxes on rich people and big corporations. In every other regard, the phrase is complete gibberish.

Republicans have consistently and repeatedly exploded the size of government over the years, driving our military spending up to the point where it's greater than the next dozen countries combined, and throwing every kind of advanced weaponry imaginable at police forces all across the nation. They give no-bid contracts to their donors and sell off public lands at pennies on the dollar to miners and frackers, wasting hundreds of billions of dollars a year.

In reality, the only "size of government" consideration Republicans have is their obsession with cutting public education and programs like Social Security and Medicare while simultaneously reducing taxes on the very, very rich.

American conservatism has been a scam since the 1920s and continues to be a scam that exclusively benefits the very White and the very wealthy in this country.

No amount of hand wringing or sloganeering or "reinventing" will change that fact. The question is, "When will the vast majority of Americans figure this out?"

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