It is not uncommon for conservatives to be portrayed in the media—typically popular media, but occasionally the news media as well—as stupid, ignorant, or racist; often a combination of all three. (For the record, I distinguish a difference between “stupid” and “ignorant”. “Stupid” implies an inability to understand something while “ignorant” implies the ability to understand something, but the willful refusal to understand.) This characterization is, of course, not true. While it is nearly undeniable that some conservatives are stupid, ignorant, or racist, there are likely just as many liberals who are stupid, ignorant, or racist. However, there are inherent flaws in the typical ideology which many conservatives subscribe to; one of which is their insistence on small government.
In January 1996, President Clinton declared that the era of big government was “over.” This is obviously not true, as the government has grown continuously since its initial explosion through President Roosevelt’s New Deal. Big government is often despised by conservatives for several reasons. One, they claim that it is inefficient, wasting taxpayer money which it should never have collected in the first place. Two, they believe that as the size of government increases it infringes on the rights and liberties of the nation. Conservatives often adhere to the belief that the states should be the dominant player in the American federal system.
The supremacy of states was once the dominant political issue in the United States, an issue which provided so contentious that it tore the nation into a civil war. Once upon a time, Southern states believed that they had ultimate authority within the bonds of their land, not the national government. When they believed that the national government was going to infringe upon this state sovereignty—in the form of outlawing slavery—the states attempted to secede from the United States. The American Civil War settled the issue, placing the states firmly in a place below the national government.
The issue has crept back into the nation’s political discourse through a couple of different topics. The most recent one is the declaration by fourteen states (Arizona, Colorado, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Wyoming) that they would nullify President Obama’s gun control measures. The concept of nullification gives the states the power to declare federal laws unconstitutional, thus allowing them to not enforce the laws. Nullification disappeared in the wake of the Civil War and yet has returned. The odds of these states successfully nullifying is practically non-existent, as no court would ever give state legislatures the authority to declare laws unconstitutional.
The key point of the nullification movement is simply to prove a point: that the federal government is overstepping its bounds. Another key example of this occurred in the immediate aftermath of President Obama’s stimulus package. When Congress successfully passed the package, several Republican governors went on record that they would accept no stimulus money due to the oppressive big-government it represented. Of course, all these governors did accept the money behind closed doors but the message was more important than the action, at least in their eyes.
Conservative’s main problem when it comes to their heavy opposition to big government is that it is, quite simply, in vain. Seventy years is a long time for government structures to plant deep roots. To believe that the United States can return to its strictly limited form a la the 1920s is tantamount to believing that a human can return to its primordial state. Once something evolves, it is nearly impossible to “de-evolve” it. Besides the fact that a return to small government is unrealistic, it is unclear exactly what conservatives would eliminate in their quest for small government. It surely would not be Social Security or Medicare—as close to political suicide as possible. What of other social programs, embodied by the catch-all phrase “welfare”? Conservatives may desire to gut these programs, but receiving voter support for such measures would be difficult. Herein resides a contradiction in the political thought of many Americans. If you posed the question, “Do you oppose big government?” to ten thousand random adults, a majority would likely answer in the affirmative. But when you follow that query up with what specific programs they would want eliminated, most would answer with very few.
Conservatives and Republicans owe it to themselves and the nation to reframe their argument against big government. If they are to succeed, they must accept the fact that government will never again return to its former minuteness and that states will be subordinate to the federal government. Those are battles that they have lost. But if conservatives and Republicans are to return to their former glory, they ought to focus on how they can direct the current size of the government to aims which would promote their other policy objectives; namely, fiscal responsibility, individual freedom, and American exceptionalism.