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 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.