Why Republicans Resist Small Government

President Barack Obama speaks to a joint session of Congress in 2009. Wikimedia Commons/The White House

When the case for limited government appears so obvious, why are small-government Republicans on the defensive?

Even in the reddest states, Republican governors have been punished for cutting government. In Louisiana, Bobby Jindal proposed the deepest higher education cuts of any state in the country, $200 million cuts in health care, and up to a 20 percent reduction in state agency budgets—all alongside $1.1 billion of tax relief. Bayou state voters responded by passing a constitutional amendment that made it all but impossible to cut the state’s Medicaid budget. By November 2015, Jindal’s approval ratings plummeted to 20 percent; depths not even reached by George W. Bush after Hurricane Katrina. A similar story can be told of Sam Brownback, who pushed through one of the largest income tax cuts in Kansas’ history, along with welfare reform and sweeping cuts in education and government services. In November 2015, Brownback’s approval ratings fell to 26 percent, giving him the dubious distinction of America’s least popular governor.

To understand Republican resistance to small government, one must look at the upheaval that has swept red America since the mid-1990s. Three interrelated trends have decimated support for limited government among Republican constituencies.

One is the rise of broken families. From 18 percent in 1996, the white out-of-wedlock birth rate has jumped to over 29 percent. These numbers, alarming as they are, obscure the scale of the crisis in the Republican heartland. In their 2006 study of U.S. demographic trends, University of Michigan sociologists Ron Lesthaeghe and Lisa Neidert stumbled across a “striking finding.” While American fertility trends generally mirror those in the industrial world, the Bible belt, spanning the Midwest, Great Plains and South, stands out as a home of “teenage childbearing, young lone mother families, and higher divorce rates.”

What's behind the high rates of family breakdown in Republican regions of the country? More so than socioeconomic hardship, a 2014 analysis by social scientists Jennifer Glass and Philip Levchak points to conservative Protestant culture. Glass and Levchak determined that “community norms” and “social institutions” among conservative Protestants are putting overwhelming pressure on the traditional family.

Conservative Protestant identity creates a cultural bind to the GOP, but, in fueling the social pathologies that accompany family breakdown, also exacerbates government dependency. New single-parent families with children cost the state up to $112 billion a year in divorce-related social-service subsides and lost revenue. Child poverty, for example, is four times higher in single-parent households than in two-parent families. The push for public assistance that family breakdown accelerates, Brookings scholar Isabel Sawhill observes, “is a hugely expensive proposition . . . inconsistent with a public ethic that values self-sufficiency over dependency.”

Another trend is a growing health crisis among working class whites. After falling for three straight decades, mortality rates for white Americans between the ages of 22 and 56 began to increase in 1999. These setbacks vary widely across educational and regional divides. While middle-age mortality rates fell among the college educated, those with a high school degree or less saw a sharp increase in death rates. For younger whites, death rates since 2009 rose by 23 percent among those without a high school education, compared to just four percent among the college educated. All seven states that experienced a gap between actual and expected morality in 2014 were in the south, while states with improvements in the mortality rate were mostly in the northeast.