How 'Government' Became A Dirty Word Anti-government sentiment has deep roots in the Republican Party — from Ronald Reagan's proclamation, "government is the problem," to last week's convention. But the message has had most of its success in the abstract, and sometimes Republicans aren't putting the ideology into practice.
NPR logo

How 'Government' Became A Dirty Word

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
How 'Government' Became A Dirty Word

How 'Government' Became A Dirty Word

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. This past week, we tried out an experiment, a kind of audio Rorschach test; where we asked random people in four cities - San Francisco, Omaha, Houston and Pittsburgh - we asked them this question:

NPR PRODUCER: What's the first word that comes to mind, when I say the word "government"?

RAZ: And here's what we heard back.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Hmm, government.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: First thing that comes to my mind - uh...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Stepping on poor people.




UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Government? I think of big brother. (LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Intrusion...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Government? Taxes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: Right now, broken.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Tries to take care of everything.

NPR PRODUCER: Is that a good thing, or a bad thing?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Uh - it's an impossible thing.

RAZ: Now, this is just a sample. But by and large, the vast majority of people in all those places, when they heard that word - government - what came to mind was negative. And so it's probably not surprising that most polls - including a recent one in July, taken by Fox News - show huge majorities of Americans who believe government is...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #9: I think it's part of the problem.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: They are the problem.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #10: They're definitely the problem.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #6: Right now, anymore, I think it's part of the problem.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #7: They should be part of the solution, but I haven't seen any solutions yet. So I can only assume that they are part of the problem.

RAZ: But start asking more questions, and at least with the people we asked, it turns out that a lot of them also want government to be part of the solution. Today and tomorrow on the program, we're going to explore those ideas. Our cover story today: how did government become something perceived as a problem?



RAZ: The message at the GOP convention this past week, was clear: Government is too big, too expensive; and it can't fix our economic problems.

PAUL RYAN: The choice is whether to put hard limits on economic growth, or hard limits on the size of government. And we choose to limit government.

GOV. SCOTT WALKER: But Mitt Romney understands - like I understand - that people, people, not governments, create jobs.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL: America is about to turn the page on Barack Obama's four-year experiment in big government. And it starts by renewing our belief...

RAZ: Now, there's nothing new about any of this. Anti-government sentiment is practically part of the American DNA, and it has deep roots in the Republican Party. Here's Julian Zelizer. He teaches history and public policy at Princeton.

JULIAN ZELIZER: Republicans, dating back to the New Deal, had always voiced their opposition to the expansion of government. It was always part of the party; the idea that centralization was bad, bureaucracy was dangerous, taxes were bad. You heard this from Republicans in the 1930s. You hear it in the 1950s, when Eisenhower is president. But the difference was until the 1960s, Republicans had a liberal wing to the party - they had New York Republicans; they had a lot of Midwestern progressives - who still said government is good for a lot of things.

RAZ: And one of those Republicans, Julian Zelizer explains, was Nelson Rockefeller. He was the governor of New York. And in 1964, at the GOP convention, he warned the party that it was becoming too conservative.


NELSON ROCKEFELLER: It's danger to the party, and it's danger to the nation. The methods of these extremist elements, I have experienced at firsthand.

ZELIZER: Nelson Rockefeller was literally booed at the convention when he speaks, and he's the representative of that wing of the party. And Goldwater becomes the face of Republicanism.


BARRY GOLDWATER: I accept your nomination with a deep sense of humility.

ZELIZER: And he shifts to the right, and he takes on a lot of core social programs - like Social Security, the Tennessee Valley Authority. And he argues, in his famous convention speech...


GOLDWATER: ...that extremism in the defense of liberty, is no vice.

ZELIZER: Extremism is something that is good, that Republicans should be proud of; if it's an extremism revolving around conservative values.


GOLDWATER: ...that moderation in the pursuit of justice, is no virtue.

ZELIZER: And then, it's really in the mid-'70s - '76 - when Reagan challenges President Gerald Ford in the primaries, through the 1980 election - when Reagan defeats Jimmy Carter - that those ideas from Goldwater are solidified, and become the defining mantra of the party.


RONALD REAGAN: In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.

ZELIZER: It's not the solution; it's part of the problem. And Reagan wanted to kind of turn the basic liberal argument that we had seen since the New Deal, on its head. And he said that the only way to really revive economic growth, to really restore faith in the country after the - kind of dismal 1970s, was to do things like cutting taxes; to deregulate as much of the economy as possible. And he really had this intense animosity, rhetorically, toward what government did on the domestic front.

RAZ: And since that time, says Julian Zelizer, that position - that government is the problem - that's become a kind of starting point for the American debate - something, as we'll hear tomorrow, many Democrats agree with as well.

ZELIZER: It's important to remember the argument about government is more successful in the abstract. So people are asked this question and they say yes, we don't like government; we don't like bureaucracy. But pretty consistently, if you ask them about specific programs, they like them. And so conservatives have been very good at kind of keeping the argument at the abstract level and more successful - politically, ideologically - at selling their arguments than liberals, even though both parts - government, and a resistance to government - are very much part of American political culture.

RAZ: A contradiction perhaps best summed up in the handwritten sign, "Government, Get Your Hands Off My Medicare."

ZELIZER: Absolutely. That - it's not a hypocrisy. It's a kind of dual way of thinking, and an ambivalence about what we are, that is continually expressed by the American public. And politicians really struggle to say, how will people think of what government is? For conservatives, if we think of bureaucracy and the notion of government, they win the battle because the polls go against Democrats. But for liberals, if you talk about Social Security, transportation, veterans' pensions, then they win the battle. So it's really what we're talking about when we talk about government, that has a big impact on public attitudes.

RAZ: That's Julian Zelizer. He teaches history and public policy at Princeton. But what about the argument that government is the problem? What about that argument, on its merits? Here's Daniel McCarthy, the editor of The American Conservative magazine.

DANIEL MCCARTHY: It's become unhinged from a relationship with the public, and it's been gained by a lot of interests - both ideological and financial. As a result, you have policies that are crafted by lobbyists and by ideologues, rather than by sincere representatives of the public interest.

RAZ: What would an ideal government look like, to you?

MCCARTHY: Well, I think an ideal government would be very close to the model found in the Constitution; one that's very decentralized, and that allows different communities to pursue the level of government - the size of government that they think is appropriate.

RAZ: Wouldn't that be inefficient?

MCCARTHY: It would inefficient, in a sort of universal context. But I don't think it would be inefficient in terms of the particular kinds of happiness that different people want to pursue throughout the country. I mean, America has always been a country of regional and religious differences, and that's perfectly fair. It's been a country of rural versus urban differences as well. The idea that we would have one set of policies that would fit everyone, seems to me inefficient in a more profound sense.

RAZ: When you hear Republicans say - as we've been hearing this past week - that government is the problem; we need government to get out of the way; what does that mean? What are they saying?

MCCARTHY: Well, it's hard to know exactly what they mean because even though that's very much the rhetoric that they emphasize, the practice that they pursue is very different. So someone like Mitt Romney, for example, had his own individual-mandate health-care plan in Massachusetts. And someone like Paul Ryan was, you know, an outspoken advocate of the bailouts in 2008 - of TARP.

So I think there's a bit of a disconnect, where the Republican Party is able to cash in on the fears that Americans have about big government, even though the Republican Party actually is practicing a form of big government itself.

RAZ: How so?

MCCARTHY: I think if you look at - whenever the Republicans have power - whether at the state level, or at the federal level - they expand the things that they think are appropriate, and the things that they think benefit them - providing more resources to churches, for example, during the faith-based initiative in the Bush administration; but also, I mean, things like the military, where you see Republicans apply a totally different standard than they would to any other department. Any kind of increase in the military budget is seen as necessarily a good thing; whereas they would never say that simply adding more money to the Education department, makes for better education across the country.

RAZ: What worries you more - the re-election of President Obama, or the election of Mitt Romney?

MCCARTHY: I think it's pretty much a wash, at this point. We have a sense that Obama is checked by having a Republican Congress. And Republicans in general, while they tend to resist all kinds of government growth under a Democratic administration, when Republicans - such as George W. Bush or Richard Nixon - is in office, Republicans tend to be much more cooperative. And since Democrats generally don't oppose big government on principle, when you have a Republican president, the result is government growth.

RAZ: In your view, gridlock is actually an ideal result.

MCCARTHY: Gridlock is actually conservative, yes. Gridlock is more conservative than single-party rule of either kind.

RAZ: So what's the point, really, of even having legislators if...

MCCARTHY: Oh, no, that's entirely the point, because you have these legislators who come together and who have, you know, very different interests not only across party lines, but also in terms of the regional, you know, interests that they represent. And one of the problems we've seen, I think, is that the parties have become more closely identified with ideologies over the past century; where instead of trying to come to an agreement on the minimum necessary things, each party will pursue much more than the minimum by trying to just exclude the other party whenever it has a majority - especially when it has, you know, all branches of government aligned with it.

RAZ: Why do you think Republicans have been so successful at establishing this brand identity - that government is the problem; government is part of the problem?

MCCARTHY: It's because Democrats, I think, have stopped even considering that possibility. So Americans - even when you have someone like Bill Clinton say, in the 1990s, that the era of big government is over, I think that the brand identity the Democrats still possess is the one they established under Franklin Roosevelt, and under Lyndon Johnson. And that leaves the field open to Republicans, to be the party that cashes in on pretty much all anti-government sentiment. Whether it's gun owners, whether it's taxpayers, whether it's small businessmen, when they think the government is on their back, they think that the Republican Party has to be the solution. Democrats just aren't willing to talk about it.

RAZ: That's Daniel McCarthy, editor of The American Conservative magazine. We're going to continue our discussion on the program tomorrow, with former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm. Stay with us. Coming up, Jim Fallows on truth and Dinesh D'Souza on his controversial new film, "Obama 2016." It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.