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The Era of Big Government is Over?

November 17, 2010

What are the implications of the Federalist and Anti-Federalists arguments on the modern political landscape? Because of successful branding techniques of the Republican Party, it would be easy to classify the GOP as the “small government” party and Democrats for “big government”. However, that ignores the complexities of today’s policy initiatives and the nuance of the Founding Fathers’ main arguments.

Anti-Federalist language has been threaded into the speeches of statesmen for decades. Teddy Roosevelt’s big stick ethics, Hoover’s bootstraps and Reagan’s limited government rhetoric is grained into the public memory. Today, both parties use Anti-Federalist poetry to gain influence with the people. Listening to Bill Clinton’s declaration that “the era of big government is over” and the constant beat of Republicans’ individualist, state rights’ rhetoric, it would seem as if everyone in the American government was looking to downsize government. The emotional appeal to the individual and to the ideal of freedom is irresistible to a budding candidate who is trying to get into office. By equating regulation with restriction of freedom (despite the fact that the two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive), politicians get many Americans yearning for a limited government of yore. With a carefully crafted message, candidates can campaign with Anti-Federalist principles in mind.



However, when looking at policy initiatives, it seems as if nobody want to downsize government. Democrats are responsible for the creation of the social security net, Keynesian economic practices, and the strengthening of executive agencies. Many Republicans are proud to stand for the patriotic PATRIOT Act, the nationalization of education standards and the expansion of the national military. Even Thomas Jefferson – a man who was certainly influenced by Anti-Federalist thought – couldn’t resist the temptation of buying the Louisiana Territories. Even when campaigning in Anti-Federalist poetry, the government is run by action-oriented leaders (even though political gridlock may make this point seem mute!). The actors of the federal government try to solve problems – which generally creates a centralized authority and Federalist oriented state.

Basically, in the United States today, statesmen of all stripes campaign in Anti-Federalist poetry and govern in Federalist prose. Do you agree?


  1. Beka Guluma permalink
    November 19, 2010 10:03 AM

    I would definitely have to agree. If asked to name a President who has decreased or decentralized government rather than increased or centralized government anyone would be hard pressed to do so. It is just the nature of the beast, and something people need to realize. Hopefully though, there will be a candidate who campaigns for limited government and enacts policy in tune with his campaign message.

  2. Alec Lessner permalink
    November 19, 2010 2:21 PM

    I’d like to respectfully refute your claim that all statesmen today campaign in Anti-Federalist poetry and govern in Federalist prose. To begin with, I don’t think that its safe to make such a broad statement that essentially says that all politicians are campaigning with similar promises of limited government and attempting to govern in a more expansive manner. Many people would agree with the generality that Americans go to the polls assuming that if they vote Democrat, they are voting for a platform that promotes a Washington more active in the people’s affairs while those that vote Republican are voting for politicians who will give their best effort to restrict the government’s influence in people’s lives.

    While Democrats may not explicitly say that they intend to be more active, this does not mean that they are campaigning in an Anti-Federalist manner, rather, there is an assumption that this will be the case if they hold government positions. And although Republicans have in fact passed “big government” legislation like the PATRIOT act, they traditionally try to restrict government control over the people and curb the effects of legislation.

    So while Democrats aren’t always up front about their intents to enlarge government, and Republicans occasionally expand the influence of the government, I don’t think this is enough to generate such an encompassing statement.

    • andrewjclark permalink
      November 19, 2010 2:55 PM

      I think your point is well taken. But I don’t know any Republican controlled Congress or presidency (perhaps Reagan) that has in sum, made the government smaller. Many Democrats, especially Third Way and Blue Dogs, also promise to downsize the bureaucracy. You would be hardpressed to find a liberal that campaigns with the slogan ‘I love huge central governments!’. I wasn’t trying to create an encompassing claim – I was just looking at an interesting phenomenon in American politics.

  3. maqianhu permalink
    November 26, 2010 5:23 PM

    I think I would agree with you that it is easier to name presidents who have expanded the government than to name ones who have shrunk it. Like you said, Roosevelt is a great example, and I would also say that Obama has done the same with the health care reform. However, such general statements should not be made; just because we cannot recall it the top of our head, it doesn’t mean that reforms haven’t been made to shrink governments.

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