The GOP is a party of nihilists, members of the government, actively working to dismantle that very government. The Trump Administration has doubled-down on this strategy, inadequately staffing critical departments including the State Department, and appointing agency heads who aim to destroy their agencies: Scott Pruitt at the EPA or Ryan Zinke at Interior. Republicans want us to become so disenchanted with the government that we let them tear the whole structure down. That means an end to environmental regulations, Social Security, food stamps, and consumer protections: a libertarian dream.
To understand how a major political party became obsessed with destroying the government, consider their demigod, Ronald Reagan. No man has done more to erode American faith in government, collective action, and national community. Reagan took libertarianism mainstream and created our first anti-government government. Thirty years later, we are still paying the price.
From the 1930s until the 1970s, income inequality fell and the nation’s middle class experienced unprecedented growth in living standards. While global competition and the 1970s recession dampened middle-class prosperity, Reagan’s policies were an economic game-changer. Reagan believed in “trickle-down economics” the voodoo that tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy will flow down to benefit the rest of Americans. Thus, Reagan more than halved the cut the top income tax rate, while simultaneously slashing public assistance programs. As a result, the rich grabbed a far greater share of the nation’s wealth, while wages for middle-class workers stagnated. The benefits never trickled-down: talk of “job-creators” and “makers vs. takers” won’t hide the fact that the one-percent have prospered, while the middle class has been hollowed out.
In addition to reducing taxes on the rich, Reagan attacked another libertarian bogeyman, organized labor. When the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) went on strike in 1981, Reagan took the radical step of firing over 10,000 of these government employees. This act not only damaged the aviation system for years but also struck a blow against all unions. Reagan’s conservative heirs like Scott Walker have used his treatment of PATCO to strip collective bargaining power from public employees and advocate “right-to-work” laws to cripple unions. Reagan also worked to weaken workers’ rights through pro-employer appointees on the National Labor Relations Board. These appointees helped shatter America’s unions and reduce the power of America’s workers. Today, most Americans enjoy less job security and far fewer benefits than their parents did. Reagan’s assault on organized labor paved the way for the gig economy, where more and more workers lack benefits, representation, and rights.
Greed is Good
Beyond stacking the deck against ordinary Americans through tax and labor policies, Reagan destabilized the economy through his embrace of unbridled capitalism. Reagan’s economic team believed in radically free markets and saw little role for the government as regulator or defender of the public interest. Their philosophy began the trend of financial deregulation that has led to repeated economic crises including the Savings and Loan Crisis, the Dot Com Bubble, and the Great Recession. By eliminating government oversight, Reagan incentivized risky behavior. No wonder that the Garn-St. Germain Act, which deregulated the savings and loan industry, was followed by the Savings and Loan Crisis.
Reagan’s Administration also showed an appalling unwillingness to prosecute the epidemic of white-collar crime of the 1980s. This era of “cowboy capitalism” was marked by corporate raiders who made millions by cutting American jobs, Wall Street market manipulators, and obscene compensation for CEOs. Given that a record 138 Reagan appointees were indicted during his presidency, perhaps it’s no surprise that the administration failed to act against these anti-social practices. Previously, the government had moderated such excesses, punishing bad behavior and regulating business to prevent economic crises. After Reagan, deregulation unsurprisingly became a pillar of the GOP platform. Frustratingly, even some Democrats have advocated deregulation, due to the massive lobbying efforts of Wall Street.
While Reagan supported corporate welfare, he opposed actual welfare and anti-poverty programs. He saw government assistance programs as corrupt, incompetent money pits that cheated hardworking (white) Americans out of their tax dollars. The “welfare queen” captures this racist view. Sadly, this image has shaped popular perceptions of welfare recipients as irresponsible drug-abusers, despite evidence to the contrary. Although many whites in red states benefitted from public assistance, the GOP cynically employed racist dog-whistles to convince voters that these critical programs exclusively benefitted non-whites. Their strategy sought to destroy the social safety net by turning different ethnic groups against each other. Today, Trump copies this script to divide Americans on issues like immigration and voting rights.
Every man for himself
To a libertarian, freedom means the right to take as much as we can for ourselves. As Reagan’s ally, Margaret Thatcher, once said, “there is no such thing as society.” There’s no more libertarian creed than that. Such a view destroys any idea of community or collective action and makes greed a virtue and a right. Human history has shown the folly of this go-it-alone approach. From winning WWII to putting a man on the moon, from the New Deal dams to atomic energy, many of America’s greatest achievements have been the result of coordinated, collective action.
Representative Barney Frank once said, “government is simply the name for the things we do together.” Reagan and his successors have waged a 30-year war against this active and community-minded vision. Unfortunately, they have been winning. Trust in government is at historic lows, and many Republicans see no role for the government in improving life in America. The Reagan Revolution is already a generation old. In that time, we have seen the fall of the middle-class and the rise of inequality, the proliferation of a selfish and self-destructive brand of capitalism, and the exploitation of ethnic resentment and community disintegration. To that legacy, we should “just say no.”