Beneath the surface of congressional gridlock and the presidential campaign runs a real debate about the role of the federal government.
This issue has deep roots in American history. The debate has three sides, which have now become so strong that they are locked in what may turn out to be a long contest.
For some, often those identified with the tea party movement, government exists to provide the limited array of services that can only be handled by a central government. National defense is an obvious element but social welfare spending is not.
This view dates from the American Revolution. Tired of British oppression, Americans wanted the new federal government to exercise only the limited powers the states granted to it. Most matters should be left to the people or voluntary associations, ranging from churches to businesses.
In the decades between the war for independence and the Civil War, this view was widely accepted. The country was mostly rural, and people counted on themselves and their neighbors to deal with their local problems.
The federal government focused on the expansion of the country. States retained considerable power and could endorse or oppose slavery, the biggest issue of the period.
Today’s opponents of “big government” echo this approach. Their position is more than simply anti-government. It is based on a belief that society, if left alone by government, will produce positive results. Competition and civic virtue should be enough.
A second view is that the greatness of the United States flows from its role as the leading world economy. Following the Civil War, which transferred huge power to the federal government then trying to hold the nation together, Americans focused increasingly on overtaking the British economy to become the world’s major economic power.
For many, the motto came to be: “the business of America is business.” The purpose of the federal government was not only to provide essential services, but also to promote the free enterprise system by aiding the private sector. The benefits of a successful private economy would provide capital for more growth and prosperity to workers.
The role of government would be to assist the private sector and to avoid imposing requirements that would undercut its ability to operate profitably. That meant adopting measures ranging from preventing labor from organizing to high import duties.
This approach was closely identified with the Republican Party but many Democrats also supported it. Today, its essence remains associated with “mainstream” Republicans, but not with the true believers in small government, who have deserted many of the GOP’s traditional corporate allies.
The Great Depression of the 1930s brought the third approach to government. The promotion of a booming economy had allowed uncontrolled behavior leading to a collapse of epic proportions. Individuals, who had been expected to benefit from a benign government or one that promoted business, ended up on bread lines.
The New Deal was based on government providing direct assistance and support to the people and less to business. This concept of government offered social welfare programs that became both necessary and popular, such as Social Security. At the same time, new government regulations were designed to prevent abuses by the private sector.
The role of government kept expanding. Eventually considerable power moved from the states and the people to Washington. The federal government grew increasingly to be in a position to grant or deny power to others in society, even the states, rather than being the recipient of powers granted to it.
The activist federal government, promoting new programs, is identified with today’s Democratic Party. Remarkably, for a party long known for including a wide variety of views, its minority status in Congress has unified it around the New Deal concept of government. Still, even the Democrats have moved somewhat back from an expansive view of the federal government.
The underlying choice for voters is among the three views of the role of government. Even social or wedge issues like same-sex marriage, abortion or gun control bear the stamp of this debate. Beyond the ballot box, the debate extends as well to decisions of the ideologically divided Supreme Court.
Few candidates can avoid taking sides. Tea partiers and mainstream Republicans are increasingly split, while Democrats hold another vision of government. Almost all partisan politicians have trouble accepting even a limited compromise among these views with gridlock as the result.
This debate, somewhat simplified as explained here, is not always obvious. But finding the proper role of government is always at the core of today’s politics.