In 1981, Ronald Reagan said: “Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem”. This particular view has been echoed and elaborated by various politicians as well as observers in the American political history. Bill Clinton proclaimed in 1996 that “the era of big government is over” (Zukin 106). However, despite all the proclamations, the successive governments have continued to expand in scope and functionality since Gilded Age Politics (1877-1900). This paper looks at the events that led to the expansions and why the phenomenon has persisted.
The Changing politics and Institutions
The changes in political and institutional conditions since American Revolution have considerably contributed to the expansion of the American governments. These political events can be dated back to the Gilded Age Politics. Many have described the Gilded Age as the period of rampant corruption, leading to mistrust that will later persist for ages to come (Ware 21). In fact, this period exposed weakness of even the greatest presidents, from Abraham Lincoln to Teddy Roosevelt, as none of them could stamp out the growing corruption (Ware 21). There was distrust as the even courts gave backings to big business, which the politicians had become accustomed to (Ware 22). However, this period had the two political parties disagree on very few issues. For example, the two political wings, Republicans and Democrats avoided taking strong political stand on issue of Gold and Silver, for fear of going against the public opinion that would be detrimental to their party (Ware 21).
This post Civil War corruption cases would be experienced unabatedly by the end of the 20th century with numerous scandals such as Watergate, whitewater, raising the Congressmen pay and scandalous check writing, and the sexual scandals (notably the Clinton/ Lewinsky saga) (Zukin 105).
These conditions increased and emphasized the policy-oriented approach to politics, changed or interacted in ways that elevated the expected benefits of pursuing policy goals in the historical period. According to Zukin (107), the five conditions can be highlighted as partisan polarization, institutional individualization, and interest group proliferation. In fact, Jacobs states categorically, “one situational factor- the close proximity of national elections-remained in pace to increase intermittently the influence of centrist opinion” (38).
The rise of strong partisan politics
The party vote and strategic shirking models emphasize the influence of voters who routinely support each political party as well as party activists and leaders (Jacobs 38). This subsequently influenced the strong partisans in political associations since independence, putting a lot of pressure on candidates and officeholders to pursue policy positions that would be favorable to the voters (Jacobs 39). For instance, the most recent political history can be observed in the relentless partisan warfare between Democrats and Republicans in the time of Clinton’s inauguration in January 1993 to the fitful and of Gingrich Congress in 1996, events that clearly illustrates the fundamental difference between politicians to the left and right over the role of government, particularly in matters in relation to the redistribution of income (Zukin 108). The widening divisions were perpetuated by the declining number of moderates within the respective parties. Again, the partisan polarization was as a result of the growing ideological difference between each party (Zukin 108). These kinds of differences created suspicions between the parties and thus individual leaders themselves. It is thus through lack of trust within the different wings of the political parties that led to each party’s attempt to go into politics with larger group to win, hence the unprecedented expanded government. These particular forces are strong that individual efforts from the likes of Reagan could not go against them.
The Rise of Individual Independence in Congress
The empowerment of individual members of Congress increased their discretion to pursue their own preferred policy goals as well as those of party activists and others. In the past, parties exercised substantial political influence over debate and legislation; the vehicle for party influence was the House and the Senate leadership during the 19th century and the system committee during the first two-thirds or so of the 20th century (Freeman 195). This influence of parties was based on their control over the selection of candidates, election campaigns, and, and during the 19th and early 20th centuries, the disposition of jobs, contracts, and other forms of patronage (Freeman 198). The political significance was the increased interest in marshalling bigger troop to counter the opponents.
Later after 1970s, the parties control was theoretically replaced by individual power in both the House and Senate. This was as a result of reforms in party rules and congressional institutions which empowered individual legislators to take policy initiatives on their own and to challenge leaders (Freeman 198). The new independence was especially apparent in the House; the norms and procedures of the Senate had already afforded wide latitude to its members. This new power of rank-and-file House members was starkly illustrated by their decisions to vote out once-powerful committee chairs and to vote in new chairs who lacked seniority (Freeman 198). In addition, the House expanded the personal staff for members and created staff agencies like the Congressional Budget Office, which equipped individual members with the analysis and capacity to pursue their own legislative interests (Freeman 198).
The Growth of Interest Groups
The Gilded Age was followed by the progressive era (1900-1914). The major theme for this period was to change the politics of the United States. Majority of the middle class Americans backed the reforms, which included issues like introduction of literacy test to reduce immigration (Ware 12). Such reforms extended to the national level, thus the increase in the elitists in government; elitists comprised of teachers, lawyers and business people (Ware 12). This same period saw many states adopting primary elections as the way to reduce the powers of the bosses and machines, and increasing the rights of the minority groups, notably women (Ware 12). This was the beginning of interest groups.
It is critical to observe that there have been growing numbers of interest groups in the United States. Such special interest groups were mainly divided along such identities as minority and special concern to the national concerns such as environmental and welfare issues. These groups could mobilize particularistic groups within a legislator’s constituency and use national political action committees to provide campaign contributions to supporters (Zukin 108). Interestingly, these groups were relatively few before 1960. However, these groups were later clustered in1960s under the umbrella of associations, e.g. the American Medical Association (AMA), which ended up dominating health policy (Zukin 108). Such groupings indented the political class to act with caution so as to maintain political mileage. While these interest groups pursued and continue to pursue their own interest, the pressure arises on the incumbent governments to satisfy their needs at all costs for political survival. Freeman (198) says that the incumbent government was forced to weigh over long periods ahead of the relative influence of opposing political and ideological forces to accurately appraise public sentiment or events that shape it.
After the 1960s, a number of indicators- from a number of registered lobbyists to the number of corporations operating offices in Washington- revealed a dramatic growth in the number and variety of organizations engaged in pursuing their interests in Washington (Zukin 108). New groups and new coalitions on social, economic, and political issues formed continually.
The result was that a relatively small number of powerful interest groups no longer dominated government decision making in particular policy areas like health care. The proliferation of narrowly based interest groups increased the pressure on the government and politicians to pursue specific policy to satisfy each of them, hence leading to an expanded government.
The expansion of the government may have occurred continuously over the years since American Revolution. However, leaders like President Reagan and Clinton may have predicted that such an expansion should be brought to a halt. Despite their proclamation, the leaders have been the victims of growth in historical events such as interest groups and policy changes that have forced them to accommodate large groups in government for political survival. As Freeman observed, “the decisions to increase the size of the government may have not been anticipated, but the government activities in social field and on the magnitude of government as such will depend on the basic philosophical attitude of the American people and their representatives in Congress and in the other branches and levels of government (191).
Freeman, Roger. The Growth of American government: A Morphology of the Welfare States. New York: Hoover, 1975. Print.
Jacobs, Lawrence & Shapiro, Robert. Politicians Don’t Pander: Political Manipulation and the Loss of Democratic Responsiveness. Chicago: Chicago Press, 2000. Print
Zukin, Cliff. A New Engagement?: Political Participation, Civic Life, and the Changing American Citizen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. Print.
Ware, Alan. “The American direct primary: party institutionalization and Transformation”, 2002.