What do we want from Uncle Sam?

July 02, 1998|By Richard Striner

EVERY generation of Americans confronts the issue of "big government" in one way or another. The revolutionaries of 1776 were insurgents against what they viewed as illegitimate British governance. In our time, Americans have been intermittently angry at their own government.

This partly stems from the fact that Americans keep changing their minds about the kind and amount of government action they want.

After the Founding Fathers experimented for a while with a weak and decentralized government under the Articles of Confederation, many of them deemed the experiment a failure and ushered in the stronger union that was framed in the Constitution.

Indeed, one of them, Alexander Hamilton, became an advocate of a heroically centralized nation. Though Hamilton's political nemesis, Thomas Jefferson, pushed in the other direction toward minimal government, even he became converted to the principle of federal aid to education and transportation at the end of his presidency. In truth, the "original intent" of the Founding Fathers was divided and subject to change when it came to the mission and extent of government.

Right now, Americans are overwhelmingly averse to the idea of "big government." A profound anti-government mood has been reflected in recent trends ranging from the extremism of militias and the Oklahoma City federal building bombing to the broad popularity of shrinking and dispersing government. Our

Democratic president proclaims that "the age of big government is over."

On the other hand, the protest against the shut-down of the federal government in 1995 was followed by a pendulum swing in the other direction as reflected in the passage of this year's federal highway bill, one of the biggest public works measures in U.S. history, and the emergence in Republican circles of self-styled "national greatness conservatives" like William Kristol, who seek a more inspiring role for Uncle Sam.

While the sources of our recent anti-government attitudes can be traced to such now-distant events as the Goldwater candidacy in 1964, the most important cause was the still-memorable age of Vietnam and Watergate.

America's gradual repudiation of the "imperial presidencies" of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon led to these declarations by Jimmy Carter in his 1978 State of the Union address: "Government cannot solve our problems. Government cannot . . . provide a bountiful economy or reduce inflation or save our cities."

If these were the views of Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1978, it was no major ideological leap to the assertion of Republican Ronald Reagan in 1981 that "government is the problem" in American life.

American history has tended to fluctuate between anti-government periods such as the past quarter-century and ages of governmental activism.

Shifting ground

After the Civil War and the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, one of our greatest champions of heroic government, came the Gilded Age interlude of minimal government. But increasing social and economic problems, especially two economic depressions in the 1870s and 1890s, led to a resurgence of governmental stewardship in the "Progressive Era," which lasted from the turn of the century through the end of World War I.

In the age of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, millions of Americans were inspired to look to Uncle Sam for protection or assistance. Then, after another pendulum swing in the other direction during the 1920s -- Warren Harding's "Back to Normalcy" administration and Calvin Coolidge's gone-fishing presidency -- Americans looked to Washington for leadership again in the Depression.

America's legacy of activist government has shifted through the cycles of our history. It has also shifted between political parties. Lincoln-era Republicanism, with its vision of government that protects and liberates, would remain an inspiration for Republicans like Theodore Roosevelt. But the principles of Theodore Roosevelt, in turn, were deeply influential in shaping the ideas of a younger, Democratic Roosevelt.

A number of commentators have argued recently that our current anti-government era will yield to a pro-government age of reform in the early 21st century. Most of these commentators have presumed that this new "progressive" age will be shaped by Democrats. Maybe it will. But we might be in for a far more interesting transformation.

Consider these calls to action: "Clear air is not free . . . The program I shall propose . . . will be the most comprehensive and costly program in this field in America's history." "The federal government must be in a position to assist in the building of new cities and the rebuilding of old ones." Congress should pass "a program to insure that no American family will be prevented from obtaining basic medical care by inability to pay."

The president who spoke these words in a state of the union address was a Republican. His name: Richard Nixon. The year: 1970.

Only time and the turbulent give-and-take of political ideas will determine what we want from our government five, 10 or 15

years from today. But the stakes will be high.

Richard Striner is an associate professor of history at Washington College.

Pub Date: 7/02/98

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