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Enemies of State

Posted: 12/15/10 11:45 AM ET

Historically, nothing has terrified conservatives so much as efficient, effective, activist government. "A thoroughly first-rate man in public service is corrosive," the former president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce argued in an interview published in the journal Nation's Business in 1928. "He eats holes in our liberties. The better he is and the longer he stays the greater the danger. If he is an enthusiast -- a bright-eyed madman who is frantic to make this the finest government in the world -- the black plague is a housepet by comparison."

One reason: Governing well in the interests of the broad majority brings compounding political benefits for the party of government. Consider the famous December 2, 1993 memo by William Kristol entitled "Defeating President Clinton's Health Care Proposal." The notion of government-guaranteed health care had to be defeated, he said, rather than compromised with, or else: "It will revive the reputation of the party that spends and regulates, the Democrats, as the generous protector of middle-class interests. And it will at the same time strike a punishing blow against Republican claims to defend the middle class by restraining government." Kristol wrote on behalf of an organization called the Project for a Republican Future. The mortal fear is that if government delivers the goods, the Republicans have no future.

The fear easily escalates unto hysteria: Activist government is a fraud in its very essence, an awesomely infernal political perpetual motion machine. "THE LIBS PLAN TO DESTROY US," runs a recent email circulating widely on the right. The text is mostly made up of a list of government departments, agencies, and programs, "many with mutable locations through the nation." It goes on to explain, "The people employed in these offices generally earn 31% more than their civilian counterparts." (In fact, controlling for education and experience, state and local public employees make less than their private-sector counterparts, according to a September 2010 report from the Economic Policy Institute.) "All are supported 100% by the American taxpayer employed in the private profit producing sector." The hysteria cannot allow, for example, that more private profit has been created out of thin air by a government invention like the Internet than any in the history of man: "they are all parasites." This essay now arriving in thousands of ordinary, everyday email inboxes concludes: "Before the 50's the Democratic party was very much the party of the average working man....[Then] the socialists in the party realized that one way for them to gain power and influence was by creating jobs...GOVERNMENT JOBS."

Three texts, all from entirely different periods, all intended for different audiences, all pitched at radically different intellectual registers. Same story. It is the specter that haunts all conservative politics. It is not entirely unfounded: Democrats have certainly not been above exploiting activist government policies for apparently political ends. In the fall of 1936, going into the presidential election, FDR's postmaster general, James Farley -- the government official most associated with party patronage, and in fact Farley doubled as head of the Democratic National Committee -- directed all post offices to hang a large, elaborate full-color poster urging "everybody working for salary or wage," with "only a few exceptions," to sign up for the new Social Security program. In giant cursive script, it promised "a monthly check to you -- for the rest of your life beginning when you are 65," and featured a picture of that check being handed out by a giant arm (Uncle Sam's, presumably), the Capitol dome looming in the background.

It is the party that regulates and spends, the Democrats, announcing itself as the generous protector of middle-class interests. The party of conservatism, the Republicans, has labored mightily ever since to convince the populace that it is business, in fact, operating according to the profit motive, that is the generous protector of middle-class interests instead. Farley's own career gives lie to the notion that government subverts prosperity by inhibiting the profit motive. By taking advantage of nationwide flight paths (another network unimaginable without government spending and regulation), the Post Office during the Depression began turning a profit. But then, government's effectiveness only redoubles the political resolve of conservatism to fight against it. According to a certain reading--one detailed, for instance, in Kim Phillips-Fein's outstanding recent book, Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan -- the history of conservative politics in America reduces to very little else. It is certainly one of conservatism's most powerful lines of continuity across the twentieth century.

Click here to read the rest of Rick Perlstein's essay at Democracy Journal.