Meanwhile, despite vehement denials, other Republicans have been insisting that Social Security and Medicare — two of the most successful federal programs — need to be drastically cut, with former vice president Mike Pence suggesting that Social Security might need to be handed over to the private sector. And some Republicans are even instigating efforts to roll back child labor laws.
These kinds of attacks have become the norm for Republicans over the four decades since President Ronald Reagan proclaimed in his first inaugural address that, “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
What explains the persistence of this assault on government — even on popular programs like Social Security?
The answer lies in a century-long campaign by conservative business leaders to develop and sell a pro-market, anti-government doctrine.
This propaganda push aimed to protect corporate profits and prerogatives by persuading Americans that what was good for business owners was good for all citizens. It was based on the idea that economic freedom was the foundation of political freedom, so any compromise of the former — even for a good cause like ending child labor or saving millions of lives in the middle of a pandemic — threatened the foundations of freedom and the American way of life. Rather than fear big business, these executives argued, Americans should fear “Big Government.” In the 1980s, Republicans adopted these arguments, transforming American politics in ways that continue to shape the country today.
This industry campaign began early in the 20th century. The issue of rural electrification provided an example of how it worked. By the 1920s, the power industry had successfully electrified many major American cities but refused to electrify large swaths of rural America because it wasn’t profitable.
Champions of rural electrification pointed out that, in neighboring Canada, the public sector was providing electricity to everyone in Ontario at a lower cost than across the border in New York. A trade group called the National Electric Light Association (NELA) responded to these arguments by running a disinformation campaign that misrepresented data on electricity costs, and paid academics to rewrite textbooks and alter college curriculums to sell the story that government programs were inefficient and threatened freedom.
This forestalled changes for a decade, until the federal government stepped in and electrified rural America as part of a public works program designed to stimulate the economy during the Great Depression.
Big business, led by the National Association of Manufacturers, at the time America’s largest trade group, spent millions of dollars on a campaign called the “Tripod of Freedom,” fighting this and other New Deal programs.
It asserted that “Free Enterprise” was one of three inseparable bedrock principles that animated the nation’s founding — which meant that the New Deal was threatening the very foundations of American democracy. But the “Tripod of Freedom” was pure invention: Free enterprise appeared in neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution.
Despite these NAM efforts, the success of the New Deal in the 1930s and the government-driven war mobilization in the early-1940s pushed anti-government thinking to the fringes of American political life. Americans had seen how government — not the private sector — had rescued the economy and helped those struggling during the Great Depression.
Into the 1950s and 1960s, anti-government thinking remained far from mainstream, even among Republicans. As President Dwight D. Eisenhower explained to his brother, “should any political party attempt to abolish Social Security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again.” Eisenhower noted that the number of people who championed such ideas was “negligible” and they were “stupid.” Indeed, when Congress created Medicare in 1965, 80 percent of Americans approved.
But the campaign to spread the gospel of markets and free enterprise never subsided. In fact, it was being nurtured in both private enterprise and popular culture.
One of the best examples came in the 1950s when Reagan hosted the popular television program, “General Electric Theater.” Each week the future president promoted didactic stories of individualism and free enterprise to tens of millions of Americans.
He also traveled the country on behalf of G.E. — visiting factories and making speeches — promoting the corporation’s anti-government vision. Reagan’s mentor was G.E. executive Lemuel Ricketts Boulware, whose anti-union tactics were so extreme they earned a name: Boulwarism. Reagan went into G.E. a pro-union Democrat and came out an anti-government Republican, with powerful backers in corporate America who helped lay the foundations for both his own political career, and for the rise of Republican anti-government extremism.
These arguments gained new ground as the manufacturing economy sputtered in the 1970s, spurred along by an organized and well-funded effort by the business community. Soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell had laid out the plan for this push in a famous 1971 memo, which exhorted business leaders to try to maximize both their profits and their power by building a set of institutions to fight unions and government regulation. Powell asserted that businesses needed to “assiduously cultivate” political power and then use it “aggressively and with determination.”
The following year, in 1972, leading CEOs created the Business Roundtable, which helped to make executives into a culturally visible and influential force.
Companies opened public affairs offices, many of which ran antiregulatory ad campaigns, hired lobbyists in force and created political action committees. They even began funding and in some cases creating organizations, institutions and think tanks that appeared independent — but which retained intricate ties to the corporate world — to espouse a pro-business message.
One of these allies was the Heritage Foundation, established in 1973 with funding from beer magnate Joseph Coors “to formulate and promote public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, [and] individual freedom.”
This network of think tanks and organizations helped catapult Reagan to the presidency. Many of his policy proposals came straight from a 1980 Heritage Foundation report, “Mandate for Leadership,” whose premise was that America faced a “crisis of overregulation” that threatened to “destroy the private competitive free-market economy it was originally designed to protect.”
This claim ignored that these regulations primarily intended to redress the failures of the free market economy, not to protect it, and that the business community had largely opposed regulations intended to protect competition, like the Sherman and Clayton Antitrust Acts.
Still, many voters agreed that America — besieged by stagflation, the nasty combination of recessionary forces and high inflation — was in crisis by 1980. Guided by these conservative business forces, the idea of blaming the poor economy on a single thing — overregulation and too much government, rather than a complex nexus of social, historical and economic factors — proved to be an election-winning strategy.
Reagan’s victory gave market fundamentalists the opportunity to put their ideology into practice. The new president assiduously worked to persuade Americans to hate “Big Government.” But he didn’t frame it as a tale of loathing. Instead, channeling the spirit of Hollywood westerns and of “General Electric Theater,” Reagan narrated the American story as a parable of individual success in a free-enterprise system — a love story about capitalism.
This strategy worked as well as any of its backers could have hoped.
By the 1990s, even many Democrats had taken up pro-market, anti-government rhetoric. In his 1996 State of the Union address, President Bill Clinton proclaimed the “era of Big Government is over.”
But far from solving America’s problems, this governing philosophy has fueled serious problems, like declining life expectancy and the climate crisis.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, climate-fueled disasters cost the United States $165 billion in 2022 alone. Meanwhile, while life expectancy continues to lengthen in most other wealthy countries, in 2015, for the first time since World War I, American life expectancy fell, driven in large part by suicide, drug overdoses and liver disease — what have been called “deaths of despair.”
Yet despite this evidence that the ideas they’ve been pushing for 40 years often have proved bad for workers, consumers and the environment, Republicans continue to double down. But their calls for more of the same ignore the historical reality: Unregulated and inadequately regulated markets have long fueled serious problems for which there has proved to be a clear solution: government action. This remains as true in 2023 as it was when it took federal action to electrify rural America in the 1930s.