Years ago Grover Norquist, a Washington insider of right wing pedigree, quipped: “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”

We hear similar sound bites now, as pundits and politicians of the right bewail the size and growth of government. Shrink government, they say, and everything will be fine!

The framing of the debate along these lines – big versus small government – is misleading. It cleverly conceals what’s at the core of the present controversy that has divided Congress and the country: the role and responsibilities of government.

For nearly a half century, the role and responsibilities of government included a measure of class compromise, societal obligations (Social Security, unemployment insurance, Medicare and Medicaid), union rights, formal equality, and expansive macroeconomic policies that favored broadly shared prosperity.

But all that changed with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. And for the next three decades right wing extremism in its various iterations dominated U.S. politics and its discourse.

Every institution of government – legislative bodies, agencies, courts, the military, and the executive branch – was turned into a super charged instrument of class warfare from above.

Markets were deregulated. Unions were busted. Industries were hollowed out. The social safety net was shredded. Entitlements and public goods like education, retirement security, health care, and so forth were attacked. The Constitution was shredded. Immigrants were turned into criminals. Racist and patriarchal ideology and practices multiplied. Working people’s income either fell or stagnated. And individualism, selfishness, and greed morphed from private vices into public virtues.

In other words, the state/government apparatus in the hands of right wing extremists was anything but a downsized, emaciated, and neutral social institution standing above society, as they claimed. It was, instead, a battering ram leaving in its path battered people and communities at home and abroad.

And to whose advantage?

Not ordinary people who bought into the notion that East Coast elites, Hollywood, liberals, unions, feminists, immigrants, gay people, and, above all, people of color and especially African American people were the cause of America’s political, economic and moral decline.

Not the teabaggers who gathered in Washington last weekend to excoriate the nation’s first Black President and worse.

Not people harboring deeply felt grievances and resentments over the downward trajectory of their lives. Not anyone who believed in fiscal rectitude because right wing extremists were not good caretakers of the nation’s finances, running up record budget deficits on their watch.

The main beneficiaries were the captains and owners of finance and industry and the luminaries of the extreme right in politics, the media, and the pulpit. Never before has income shifted so quickly and massively to the top one percent of the population.

But the jig could well be up.

The election of Barack Obama has turned the tables against the right wing extremists and their corporate supporters. They find themselves on the defensive.

The president and the coalition that elected him have the power within their hands to reconfigure the role and responsibilities of government in the interests of working people and their allies for the first time in decades.

And it is this possibility that is sending the spokespeople of right wing extremism into a rage. Invoking the “specter of big government” – not to mention the “specter of an African American in the White House, a Latina woman on the Supreme Court, gay people a part of the fabric of everyday life, and creeping socialism” – the demagogues of the right are whipping up their grassroots constituency into a frenzy of hate, racism, misogyny, homophobia, false patriotism, immigrant and union bashing, and violence.

The American people, however, have more common sense than to buy this bill of goods. Too much has happened and too many hearts broken over the past 30 years for them to climb on the right-wing, anti-government bandwagon.

The way forward may not be completely clear, but the road offered by the new president and the coalition that elected him is still one that millions are ready to fight for.




Sam Webb
Sam Webb

Sam Webb is a long-time socialist and activist living in New York. He served as the national chairperson of the Communist Party from 2000 to 2014. Previously, he was the state organizer of the Communist Party in Michigan. Earlier, he was active in the labor movement in his home state of Maine. He blogs at