Oppression, big government, history

Source: Wikipedia

I had a couple of experiences over the weekend that got me thinking about the fundamental narrative shaping modern conservatism, namely the idea that big government is, by its very nature, an entity that gravitates toward oppression.

Thinkers on the right have teased out a real vein of thinking among the Founding Fathers, who warned of an over-powering government bureaucracy eroding individual liberties.

Many of the modern causes that unite conservatives — opposition to taxation, gun ownership, state's rights and deregulation — take up this "small government" banner.

The first experience that got me thinking about what amounts to a modern resistance movement was a power point presentation distributed by the popular right-wing blog site RedState.com.

The slide show lays out an argument for conservative activists which centers around the notion that free America is at the brink of existential defeat.

A tipping point lies very near where the forces of socialism and statism — big government, in other words — will have extinguished any real hope of maintaining individual liberty.

The premise is that Democrats, led by Barack Obama, have set forth to "remake American politics" and conservatives must quickly "unite or perish."

The illustration for the blog post shows the Spartan warriors banded together at the battle of Thermopylae.

The second experience that resonated with this essay and blog post was an ecumenical church service I attended in Saranac Lake, in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

I was reminded during the course of the service that in actual American history — not the theoretical, cautionary history advanced by the right — big government has moved at least twice to remove the shackles of oppression.

The first instance, of course, was during the Civil War, when the Union army laid siege to the brutal regime of the Confederacy, which was keeping hundreds of thousands of men and women in abject slavery.

The second instance came during the Civil Rights movement, when the United States government mobilized military forces and the FBI to help end the Jim Crow laws and the terrorist campaign of lynchings and church bombings that had spread across the South.

At both these junctures in our actual, lived history, local and state governments were using unbridled power to oppress the citizens under their sway.

And it was the larger government — the massive Federal bureaucracy — that moved to end the oppression, returning the rights of political freedom and self-determination to millions of people.

I don't have a tidy way to resolve the tension that these two narratives create in my mind.  There are, to be sure, cases where government chips away or sweeps aside the freedoms of the governed.

We see it today from the communist regime in Beijing to the religious tyrants in Tehran.

And here in the U.S., there are legitimate debates over government monitoring of citizens, the massive size of our standing military, and the regulation of firearms.

But it's also clear — from our lived experience — that there are times and places where a powerful government has the power to liberate and empower individuals.

These points of history also provide important context for the debate over the Democratic Party's modern agenda.

To be sure, the White House is advocating for a stronger, more robust central government than many on the right would desire.

But we've seen much larger waxings and wanings of Federal power during the long journey of our republic, without the permanent loss of freedom.

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34 Responses to “Oppression, big government, history”

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  1. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Interesting that a military state with few individual freedoms (Sparta) would be chosen to represent the modern conservative movement.

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  2. Rancid Crabtree says:

    Even a blind squirrel find an acorn once in a while. I think if you get beyond the hyperbole and emotion, you find most advocates of smaller, limited gov't aren't against gov't itself. We need good gov't or we have anarchy. But there seems to be a big divide between our view of a smaller, less expensive, more conservative gov't and the other end of the spectrum where gov't is the be all, end all or everything. IMO, in laymans terms, I prefer my individual liberties, responsibilities and money remain in my hands rather than trading it all off for promises of a better tomorrow. I prefer a gov't that works for us, rather than a population that works for gov't. To me, it's that simple.

    Brian mentions the Civil War. Lincoln saved the Union. He also broke a huge number of laws doing it, made war on his own countrymen and forced people to bend to the will of gov't. He didn't do it over slavery, he did it because he believed the gov't had the right and power to do it. I have mixed emotions on the CW. Lincoln clearly over stepped his authority based on the law of the day. And having spent a good deal of time reading the thoughts of Secessionists of the day I realize the issue was far more complex than simply slavery. Still, slavery is wrong, my family fought for the Union. I just feel it's a terrible thing that it came to war.

    By the time the Civil Rights movement came about the law was clear. I don't see that as anywhere near the same as the CW. I believe a far more important period in gov't growth and seizure of power has come in the past 2 decades. Consider that today the gov't, working through OSHA and other agencies, effectively prevents people from taking part in organization whose sole purpose is helping their neighbors and saving lives. I think NCPR and NPR would do a great service to our residents by looking into the overbearing and onerous regualtions affecting our volunteer fire co's and rescue squads. These volunteers are dealt with the same way professionals are. Because of that it's practically impossible to meet the requirements in training and money to form a new fire co and it's becoming increasingly hard to maintain membership in existing outfits. Why? Why does gov't give us only the choice of relying on a distant company that will arrive in time to hose down the basement or to meet impossible standards and funding? IMO it's criminal. I truly wish the media would, for once, realize peoples lives and property are at stake and that gov't has gone too far and help us reduce the mandated requirements in play.

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  3. Newt says:

    When I was a high school student in the 60s during the Civil Rights movement, I was against laws that enforced Jim Crow and segregation, but I was also against the Civil Rights Act. I, having grown up in a very Republican town and recently read "The Foutainhead", believed that we should just get government out of the way and let individuals work things out on their own. If you didn't hire all qualified applicants, your business would suffer, and the guys who did would prosper . If you to refused customers of a certain race in your restaurant or motel, you lost business to those who did not, they would do better, and, sooner or later the discriminators would either change or go out of business. I believed in the "economic man" model.

    Eventually it became clear to me that the pure economic view who human nature was as bogus as the communistic one,. If we truly believed in realizing the ideas stated in the Declaration of Independence, we needed to at some time, impose these values on others. Many white people in the South, and elsewhere, would probably rather see their house burn down, lose their jobs, and see their kids go shoeless and illiterate than let them go to school or eat in a restaurant, or vote, with blacks (now that I think about it….nevermind). Imperfect as Federal imposition of civil and voting rights has been, it has certainly made for a better nation than the one I grew up in.

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  4. jeff says:

    I expect the "big government" appellation may be a catch-all which includes any government annoyance. For instance building codes are not developed by government but adopted from efforts of non-governmental organizations. They are burdensome or at least annoying. Zoning regulations such as prohibition to part a car in the front yard or even in the driveway or to have a garden in the front yard are not reasonable…. to me. They are for the purpose of "keeping up apprearances."

    The Big Government epithet is for too much government. However it is also an outflow of a decline in "common sense." When people don't have common experience and understanding there is a clash between beliefs or preferred practices. The result is someone is offended and goes and seeks a law to be written.

    If it wasn't for "big government" we'd have no bill of rights or courts to turn to.

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  5. Jim Bullard says:

    No freedom is absolute. If you have total individual freedom it is likely that you will be infringing the freedom of your neighbor. That is true even if you are living in the middle of nowhere with only nature for your neighbor. It seems to me that the role of government is to set the limits of freedom, both individual and collective, in such a way that it best serves the greatest number. Alas, it is impossible to do perfectly let alone find a balance that best serves everyone all the time but "The American Experiment" is nothing less than an ongoing attempt to do exactly that. So far it has been pretty successful IMO.

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  6. The Original Larry says:

    The most egregious example of big government, the New Deal, did little, if anything, to aid the Civil Rights movement. In fact, that big government enabled FDR to imprison American citizens. Eleanor Roosevelt and even Major League Baseball arguably did more for Civil Rights than the government, big or otherwise. Even as the Federal Government later provided limited aid and plenty of lip service, the FBI and other government agencies were doing all they could to stop the Civil Rights movement.

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  7. jeff says:

    That lack of "common sense" I referred to is the source of a lot of our partisan conflict today. I am comfortable with most clearcutting of timber, because I know the science behind the concept. Others are disgusted with its dramatic visual impact. Many are comfortable with the design of the development plannded for Tupper Lake but there facets of the changes that are objectionable to others.

    In the days of slavery some avidly supported it, others had to go along to get alone, others were essentially unconcerned and others actively sought its dissolution. Like waves of a tsunami, when the first wave has passed, or in the case of slavery, been outlawed, there are still waves, like segregation that have to subside.

    In the case of opposition to social changes some are resigned to eventual persecution as the order is turned on its head.

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  8. Rancid Crabtree says:

    "Interesting that a military state with few individual freedoms (Sparta) would be chosen to represent the modern conservative movement."

    True enough. You have to remember most peoples sole knowledge of Sparta consists of what they saw in "300". For that matter, an unbelievable number of people were unaware the movie "Titanic" was based on an actual historical event!

    And people wonder what I mean when I say we get the gov't we deserve.

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  9. JDM says:

    "And it was the larger government — the massive Federal bureaucracy — that moved to end the oppression, returning the rights of political freedom and self-determination to millions of people."

    This is a "wag-the-dog" statement.

    The Federal Government moved, however reluctantly, in response to free people yearning to be free.

    Not only was it not the government's initiative. It was not the Democratic majority that carried the day. It was the Democratic party that takes credit. And it is the media's duty to carry on that legacy, however inaccurate.

    Of the “nay” votes, three-fourths were Democrats. In short, the bill could not have passed without Republican support. As Time Magazine observed, “In one of the most lopsidedly Democratic Houses since the days of F.D.R., Republicans were vital to the passage of a bill for which the Democratic administration means to take full political credit this year.”


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  10. Peter Hahn says:

    A lot of that early distrust of the federal government had nothing to do with oppression per se – there were 13 little independent states and they wanted to be able to oppress in their own way, not the way of some group of other states.

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  11. Paul says:

    The whole premise is off the mark.

    Conservatives are FOR big government. Liberals and conservatives just differ on how the money should be spent.

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  12. Walker says:

    "Of the “nay” votes, three-fourths were Democrats."

    Well, fair enough, but those nay-voting southern Democrats became Republicans by 'n' by.

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  13. Peter Hahn says:

    Rancid brings up a good point about the Nanny state. Those safety regulations are more likely to be pushed by liberals than conservatives. You can go to any third world country and see what its like to have no safety regulations (or no way to enforce them). Its not pretty. It may be cheaper to bribe the building inspector than put in all the extra rebar in case of some earthquake that probably wont ever happen etc. (to Newt's economic argument) But obviously there are burdensome regulations and there is the question of how much personal danger should the government weight in on. Example: There is the local issue of child farm labor. Farms are among the most dangerous places to work, and lots of children (teenagers) get jobs on farms – maybe their neighbors farms. Its good experience but dangerous.

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  14. dave says:

    "Of the “nay” votes, three-fourths were Democrats. In short, the bill could not have passed without Republican support."

    Once again…

    At this point in our political history the "Democrats" and "Republicans" were essentially the opposite of how we know them today.

    The Democrats you are talking about here, the "nay" votes, were southern conservatives.

    So talking about these topics in terms of party affiliation is just about meaningless.

    I think the take away here is that southern conservative politicians have been on the wrong side of a lot of nasty history… no matter what party they happened to inhabit at the time. Right now, they just happen to inhabit the republican party.

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  15. dave says:

    There is no getting around this point: Government – big or small – is us.

    We are the government.

    That is what is so wonderful about our system.

    We run for office, we elect our officials, a lot of us work for the institutions that this creates, and on and on.

    So when people rage about "the government", what they are really raging about – whether they realize it or not – is their fellow citizens. Their unhappiness is not with some boogeyman, it is with the way a majority of their fellow citizens, through elections and over time, have chosen to govern themselves.

    I know it is easier for people to create this mythical monster to battle – the somehow disconnected evil government – but that is simply not reality. The people who created these institutions, the people running them, the people overseeing them… these are people that the majority of us citizens voted for.

    What should we call people who want to tear down the systems that were developed by a majority of citizens in free and fair elections?

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  16. Paul says:

    Back in the 60s it were the liberals who hated the "man" now it is the conservatives. Whatever.

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  17. jeff says:

    Dave says the government is us. But when folks see proposals that are far from their own desires they begin to think of THEM and we. People lose sight of what is common among us. Or the common things change and connections are lost. New connections haven't formed.

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  18. Paul says:

    "“The most dangerous man to any government is the man who is able to think things out for himself, without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos. Almost inevitably he comes to the conclusion that the government he lives under is dishonest, insane, and intolerable…”

    H.L. Mencken

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  19. Brian Mann says:

    Paul –

    Mencken's views on almost everything – from Jews to Southerners to Christians — were bilious. What's more, he's simply wrong. The American democracy of the present day is relatively honest and transparent compared with every other form of government ever seen on the face of the earth. It is anything but insane — on the contrary, its motivations and impulses are entirely understandable, if not always admirable. Finally, our elected government is clearly tolerable. We know as much, because we tolerate it (and then some) every two years when we go to the ballot box.

    –Brian, NCPR

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  20. Peter Hahn says:

    Paul -in the 60's it was the radical left who hated the liberals, as now the tea party right hates them.

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  21. Rancid Crabtree says:

    Sorry folks but the Republicans and Democrats of the 50's and 60's were not diametrically opposite of what we have today as some claim. That's "factually incorrect". That is revisionist history offered by the Democrats who needed a way to explain why so many of their members were fighting the civil rights movement back in the day. The Democrat party in those days was the party of FDR and nothing has changed since then. If you look back through the history of the Republican party you will see some upheavals, splinters and changes. In fact I'd venture to say the Democrat party has been far more steady and focused than the Republican party overall. But the main elements of the 2 parties have been pretty consistent over the last century with the Democcrats taking the side towards larger, more expansive gov't and the Republicans taking the side towards smaller gov't. What has changed markedly is the way the Republicans were generally isolationist and anti-war up until the Eisenhower era. And of course the Republican parties rock solid hold on the black vote died overnight with the New Deal. But you can't rewrite history. George Wallace, Robert Bird, Ernest Hollings, J William Fulbright, Sam Ervin, Orval Faubus, Lester Maddox, Albert Gore Sr- all fought minority civil rights. Senators Lyndon Johnson and John Kennedy were among other Democrats not supporting, or even out rightly criticizing, Eisenhowers deployment of the 82nd Airborne to force integration at Little Rock when Gov Faubus refused. Anyone that would label Kennedy a "Dixiecrat" needs their head examined. True enough, Republicans have a history of using the power of gov't too. But lets not try to rewrite history to cover up the mistakes the whole of the Democrat party have made over the years. Of course only now do we view them as mistakes. At the time they had widespread support among many Democrats in different areas of the nation.

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  22. Peter Hahn says:

    Rancid – you are ignoring history. Look at todays "red states". Solid republicans in the south – virtually the same people (if they are still alive) as the southern democrats. Those same southern states used to vote democratic. They were conservative then, they are conservative now. The only difference is that they were Democrats, and now they are Republicans. The politicians you list, even including JFK were responding to political pressure from them.

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  23. hermit thrush says:

    i think rancid is definitely right, at least in the large, that "the Republicans and Democrats of the 50's and 60's were not diametrically opposite of what we have today." the truth is more complicated than that. both parties were more heterodox then. both parties contained white supremacists. but with the passage of civil rights legislation, there was a huge shift of white supremacists out of the democratic party and into the republican party. the electoral exploitation of this shift is exactly what nixon's southern strategy was about.

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  24. Mervel says:

    Big government is a tool for good or for evil. The question is the will of those in power and how they wield that power. It was government that was enforcing Jim Crow (state governments), certainly the federal government helped the civil rights movement and eventually enforced it through laws.

    But big government is who invaded Iraq, big government is who is in Afghanistan, big government is who is flying killer drones around and who is committing torture and setting up secret detention centers. The blunt force of government I think is a dangerous thing. Look at the war on drugs and the prison industry for example, look at the people being highlighted on NPR's blog who's lives have been ruined by that system.

    I would veer toward giving the government a little less power and the individual more, however it is a matter of degree. Good government is needed and a blessing and we should not hate our government which to me is a big problem for some of those on the far right. But people on the Left always think government is about helping people and sometimes it is, but government is also about forcing people and about self preservation.

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  25. The pic of MLK reminds me of the fact that the NRA and Saint Ronald Reagan were in FAVOR of gun control back in the 60s when it was the Black Panthers who were arming.

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  26. Rancid Crabtree says:

    There is no connection between conservatism and white supremacy any more than there is a connection between liberalism and black supremacy or La Raza. I don't believe for a second that Bernie Sanders is in favor of some of the crap spouted by Louis Farakhan or the Black Panthers. Similarly, I'm conservative but I have no use for white supremacists any more than most conservatives I know. OTOH, I know some extremely hard core Democrats here in SLC that are as bigoted towards blacks as you can imagine. So I don't buy this "all the southern white supremacists became Republicans" stuff. People change. I think some of the posters here should spend some time in the south and realize it's not 1952 down there anymore.

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  27. Peter Hahn says:

    All white supremacists are also conservatives, but not all conservatives are white supremacists. No liberals are black supremacists and no black supremacists are liberals.

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  28. Peter Hahn says:

    but this has nothing to do with big vs small government

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  29. Paul says:

    Brian Mann, I don't know if he was talking about our governement. I just posted the quote since it seems like some people feel that way these days. I don't.

    Perhaps his view was – without vigilance maybe we could end up like that.

    Personally I am not that worried. Like I said conservatives want big govt in some depts liberal seem to want it in others.

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  30. Will Doolittle says:

    Rancid, It's the politicians — the white Democratic southern politicians of the '50s and '60s did become the white Republican politicians of the '80s and '90s.
    Brian M., I think you're being a bit hard on Mencken, a fellow journalist and a great one in many ways. He used exaggeration for humorous effect and it's not really fair to judge him on a piece of a sentence snatched out of context.

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  31. Brian Mann says:

    Hi Will – He was a great journalist, but I think he was also a fairly real misanthrope. Some of it was for effect, but a lot of it was just a general stuff and vinegar. I agree that his general grittiness made him a damned good writer and reporter.

    –Brian, NCPR

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  32. Paul says:

    What the heck is a "black supremacist". That is a new one for me!

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  33. Pete Klein says:

    Couple of points of interest
    The South Started the Civil War.
    The Democrats who voted against the Civil Rights Act were mostly Dixicrats who soon switched to the Republican Party and remain there today.
    For those conservative Christians who are in love with Ayn Rand, remember she was not a Christian. Her view of religion was stated in Playboy when she said, "Faith, as such, is extremely detrimental to human life: it is the negation of reason."
    She also said this about abortion, "Abortion is a moral right—which should be left to the sole discretion of the woman involved; morally, nothing other than her wish in the matter is to be considered. Who can conceivably have the right to dictate to her what disposition she is to make of the functions of her own body?"
    By the way, every time you recite the Pledge of Allegiance, you are pledging allegiance to the United States, not some rinky dink state. You are an American. You just happen to live in one of the states.

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  34. Walker says:

    "What the heck is a 'black supremacist'?"

    Wikipedia: Black supremacy. Nation of Islam and Black Panthers are names you'd certainly recognize.

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