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"Small gov't" slogans are for suckers

Ever since The New Deal, conservatives have excoriated the idea of a government that helps the nation's most vulnerable citizens. Through the decades of the Cold War the right's hostility toward government intensified as the U.S. faced off with the repressive Soviet Union. And, with little  effort, conservatives added fear to their loathing of government.

Over time, what hardened into conventional wisdom among conservative thinkers, leaders and voters, found its way into President Ronald Reagan's 1981 inaugural speech. Delivering his retort to a straw man argument, Reagan asserted, "Big government isn't the solution to our problems, big government is the problem." Such thinking, however, cannot withstand the most lenient level of scrutiny.

The rhetorical assault upon government assumes the participation of a fully engaged voting population. President Reagan's patronizing reference to “we the people” in the same speech,  illustrates this assumption. However, mediocre electoral participation by eligible voters does not bear this out.

Rather than encouraging citizens to exercise greater influence over elected leaders, anti-government ideologues have sought to exploit failures of trust between government and the people whenever they occur. "See? Government does not work! So, we need less of it," say those who angle to profit from a government that is out to lunch as an agent of accountability.

Just look at the financial catastrophe that most of our nation is still digging out of. It is a fact of public record that securities fraud and criminally negligent lending practices led to the siphoning of middle class assets (401k's, pension funds) and filled the coffers of Wall Street's financial elite.

Until this day no significant decision maker from Wall Street has been brought to justice. And no one should harbor hope that any complicit parties will be held criminally accountable--not as long as campaign donations can purchase them the best immunity money can buy. For this miscarriage of justice, voters have no one to blame but themselves. Regulatory and judicial delinquence flourishes at the end of a broken chain of accountability--what should link from citizens to their elected representatives and out over all the civic institutions charged with overseeing the public interest.

Today's typically knee-jerk antagonism toward government conceals a far more crucial dimension of our nation's politics: that voters are largely failing at the task of self-governance.


Every time a voter stands back to blame the government for decisions or bureaucratic folly that violate common sense, that individual abdicates his or her responsibility as a citizen legislator.

What responsibility?

To be specific, first, voters have avoided the effort of staying informed about decisions their elected representatives make--the "why?" or "how much money?" that is incentive for the casting of each legislative vote. Then, more importantly, a majority of voters remain disorganized, unable to ply the force of their considerable numbers. They find it far more preferable to complain than having to interact with other voters for the cause of improving our republic.

There's no more relevant example of this reality than the loud wailing over the "news" of the NSA's surveillance overreach. The sudden shock many have expressed about government snooping authorized by the Patriot Act, illustrates the prerogatives of the Rip Vanwinkle class of voters: passivity and a studied cluelessness. When the original bill was introduced in Congress back in late 2001, it received very little public scrutiny.

Need more evidence?

Look at how difficult it is for everyday citizens to get a fair hearing from their elected representatives on a matter like firearms and public safety. Just a few months ago the U.S. Senate considered legislation expanding background checks for gun sales, an effort that enjoyed support from close to nine out of ten Americans. The measure failed to pole vault over filibuster by only six votes. The National Rifle Association, along with other gun lobby shops, flexed its considerable influence over the Senate in the effort to monkey wrench the background check from approval.

This scenario illustrates the influence gap between the will of a majority and the power of a fractional but elite group campaign funders.

The role as a citizen legislator, however, is a useless part to play unless one cooperates with a plurality of other voters. This cooperation serves as crucial bond within the governing body known as 'we the people'. (Research in the field of physics has looked at the impact of voter networks upon the outcome of elections. Its findings suggest that the party with the most mutually-linked voters comes out on top at the polls.)

Again, it should by now be blindingly obvious that just showing up to vote on Election Day doesn't cut it in this republic--that is, if voters hope to keep up with the syndicate of campaign donors and lobbyists currently pulling Congress's strings.

In order to overcome the influence advantage exploited by wealthy campaign funders, voters must reevaluate candidate viability. Until now, the campaign funders (along with party leaders) have defined viability as the candidate who can competitively raise large sums of money (i.e., keeping up with other contenders raising mounds of  mammon). As a result, a campaign's budget has become the de facto barometer of a candidate's worthiness as a public servant. The quality of his or her ideas? Not so much.

So it begs the question--how do voters go about redefining candidate viability? How might they demand campaign finance accoutability from candidates running for public office? Whatever effort they attempt, they need a plurality of citizens to speak with one voice so that it is clear to political candidates that an election cannot be won without this plurality of voters.

What said plurality of voters must demand from candidates is equal consideration of all voters; and without limiting all campaign donations to an amount that equalizes the influence of all citizens, fairness will continue its exile from our nation's politics.

With this in mind, I have launched a petition addressed to the 2016 Democratic front-running candidate for president, Hillary Clinton. The document asks Mrs. Clinton to limit all donations to her campaign for president to $250 per donor. (A reasonable criticism of this petition suggests that it unfairly singles out Clinton's campaign. This would be true if there had already emerged a front runner from another major party whose members are assembling the apparatus for a 2016 run.)

This petition must utilize the Clinton name recognition and notoriety to reach as many voters as possible. It has the lofty goal of reaching five (5) million signatures by Jan. 2015--a number I hope will make campaign finance accountability worthy of discussion within the political arena.

Given that most voters, as individuals, do not give a second thought to what practical steps they can take to stop the legalized bribery, this petition at the very least opens a discussion about consensus building among voters for meaningful change. Aside from sending a crucial message to political candidates, the petition's intent seeks to engage voters in a simple conversation about political campaign funding and fairness within our republic.

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Reader Comments (2)

From the title of the article I was hoping for something more substantial. Instead, the initial quote was the best thing offered.

The argument could be interesting, because "big government" vs. "small government" is such a poor framing of the issues, which is part of why the debate is so poor. If the function of government is to build roads, and the government has hired 20 people to build roads and 100,000 people to trim bonsai plants, is the government 'too big' or 'too small'. The question doesn't make sense and isn't really even relevant.

It's also not relevant whether you like bonsai's and whether bonsai's can be happy without someone to take care of them - but that would extend the analogy too far! But more on that note: dating complaints about government helping 'the most vulnerable' to the New Deal is a bit silly: the Roman playwrite Juvenal was complaining about it 1700 years earlier when he coined the phrase "bread and circuses" for that very reason. Remember "bread" is the staple of life - the Roman government was using control of grain by taxation and redistribution to buy off the citizens and consolidate power. People have thought about this for a long time. One solution to the issue was thought up a couple hundred years ago was to give the government the power to deal with international issues and leave social issues to local jurisdictions, so only local jurisdictions could provide bread and circuses and they would be constrained by their own budget. That was the US Constitution - which we don't currently agree with, and for some good reasons. It is much easier to understand the debates about the "common good" clause if we just take a deep breath and admit it. 'Common good' means bridges and other things in 'the commons.' The entire structure of the Constitution is intended to limit federal government, and since we want the government to do things beyond what was originally said, we need to amend the thing to say what additional things we want the federal government to do. Otherwise we waste time having the Supreme Court do the mystery dance and "interpret" things into the Constitution that just aren't there - which is pretty much all of the cases depending on 'the common good' phrase. Discussions are more civilized when we aren't paying people to lie to us.

Then we could have a discussion about why we think certain things are better done by the federal government and why. Is it more or less efficient to make decisions in DC on certain topics? And face it, once you decide the money for something comes from DC, you are basically deciding the decisions about it will be made in DC, and DC will take a hefty commission for that service.

There are a lot of good questions to ask. This article doesn't really ask any of them.

July 25, 2013 | Unregistered Commentermnemos

...and, frankly, neither does your response. But take courage--you win the "Best Classically Educated" Troll Award™.

I will risk "silly" any ol' day for a point of reference that most readers can grasp and relate to. I am not a scholar nor do I wish to be. What interests me is doing my part to help citizens understand that we can build and maintain a consensus for the purpose of solving some our country's most pressing problems. All the gum flapping about "big government" and "small government" is a distraction. Voters who who get taken by that ridiculous cant, miss out on God-knows how many opportunties to interface with other citizens for crucial consensus building.

Perhaps by the title of this posting you were expecting a survey of the most notorious "small government" slogans--for which let down I am hemorrhaging apologies.

July 25, 2013 | Registered Commenterjude folly

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