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?

Declining health outcomes, unsurprisingly, are increasing demand for government-sponsored health care. Already, at least 20 percent of entitlements go to the disabled. Princeton University economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton argue that the worsening state of white lower class health standards helps explain the recent growth in Social Security Disability Insurance as well as the decline in labor force participation. Indeed, it was not until the passage of Obamacare that a long-standing decline in health insurance coverage among middle-aged whites reversed.

Finally, the Republican Party has seen an ideological shift away from cosmopolitan liberalism toward nationalism. A 1994 study on American nationalism found that “cosmopolitan liberalism” was the “dominant outlook” and “relative bedrock” of American society. Although the survey found a “noticeable acceptance” of nativist ideas on a small subset of issues, Americans by and large remained committed to individualistic ideals, and expressed confidence in the country’s ability to assimilate newcomers. Cosmopolitan liberalism informed market economics at home and a foreign policy congenial to free trade and the “active diffusion of democratic capitalism abroad.”­ This brand of national pride was strong, but “not ideological in nature" and “no stronger among conservatives than liberals.” Today, more exclusionary varieties of nationalism prevail in the Republican Party and provide the political backdrop not only for high levels of defense spending, but also for the mainstreaming of large-government “economic nationalism.”

Trends in family breakdown, health and nationalistic views help explain unprecedented rates of government dependency. The problem isn’t just “lonely Julia” and “pajama boy”; government dependency is now the norm among white Americans, who receive more than their proportionate share of entitlements. These trends show why the number of households getting federal benefits has jumped from less than 40 percent in the mid-1990s to nearly 50 percent today, and why 60 percent of Americans take more in government benefits than they pay in taxes.

Ten years ago, the Cato Institute posed an uncomfortable question: Could the GOP and limited government have a future together? The debate appears to be settling in the negative. But if the Trump administration and its congressional allies can move quickly on government reform, perhaps they can upend it.

Pratik Chougule is the managing editor of the National Interest.

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