A paradox emerges from the burning cities across our country: a Left that trusts big government but not the cop on the street who represents it, and a Right that trusts the cop but not the government he represents.
The murder of George Floyd was horrific and justly causes moral indignation. The national conversation is a needed call to reexamine accountability in our police departments, and to exercise humility as we listen to neighbors who are hurting.
But another conversation is playing out alongside (though distinct from) this discussion. The Left has expressed horror at efforts, especially by President Donald Trump, to decisively maintain order while violent riots and peaceful protests compete in cities across America.
The Atlantic bemoaned “the use of military power to suppress democratic freedoms.”
David Ignatius of the Washington Post condemned Trump’s “attempt to outsource strongman rule to the military.”
The New York Times editorial board expressed horror as “soldiers trained for war in foreign countries stood on the corners of American streets” to defend against mobs of rioters. “Police are acting like the Constitution has been rewritten,” the Times warns.
Plenty of this dialogue isn’t particularly insightful, but the repulsion many have voiced toward a powerful police state denying citizens their right to be heard (which doesn’t mean a right to injure people and destroy property) isn’t a bad instinct. It’s actually an instinct that both sides of the aisle agree on more than they realize, if everyone would stop throwing things and think about it.
Distrust of government is a tradition going back to our founding. “I am not a friend to a very energetic government,” wrote Thomas Jefferson in a letter to James Madison. “It is always oppressive.”
As a result, the founders carefully limited the scope and power of the federal government. Since then, conservatives have continued to be skeptical of strong government and big government programs. Ronald Reagan said it best in his inaugural address: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to the problem; government is the problem.”
But in the last century, liberal progressives have celebrated the expansion of the federal government and its growing power. It was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a champion of the Left, who transformed the size and function of the federal government, specifically the executive branch, when the Brownlow Committee recommended the creation of the Executive Office of the President in 1937. (Roosevelt’s predecessor, Herbert Hoover, was criticized when he replaced the president’s singular secretary with four aides.) Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, lauded by the Left, dramatically increased the role that the federal government played in Americans’ daily lives.
Under the administration of democrat Lyndon Johnson, federal programs (and their influence and power) expanded again, with “Great Society” initiatives such as Medicare, Medicaid, federal involvement in education, and public housing programs. Certain bureaucratic failures of these programs aside, the Great Society posed another reach by the federal government into Americans’ lives.
Today, a man who was almost the Democratic presidential nominee (twice) advocates for dramatically expanding the power of the federal government. Sen. Bernie Sanders has plans for the nanny state to become the provider of higher education, housing, healthcare, child care, and even high-speed internet. He also wants to erase the constitutional right to bear arms, and plans to pay for his excessive programs by taxing Americans.
For the last hundred years, the Left has been the standard-bearer for the growth of government. And suddenly, they’re reaping the results. They’re horrified at a strong federal government and its power to police its constituents. On behalf of limited-government conservatives: welcome to the club.
Of course, loving limited government doesn’t mean telling police to stand down while rioters trash streets and burn buildings. Society ceases to exist without order; the essential purpose of government is to protect your rights to life, liberty, and property.
However, in a cultural moment when no one seems to agree, perhaps conservatives and progressives alike can recognize a problem much higher up than their local police departments. If you give the federal government increased power over your life–your money, your healthcare, your children’s education, your housing–it shouldn’t come as a surprise when the government gets used to its authority at the first sign of grievances.
“A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have,” President Gerald Ford reminded Congress in 1974. The Left has spent a century chasing after a government that can provide everything its voters desire–and we shouldn’t be surprised that suddenly, the bureaucratic Leviathan has the power to take it away.