Upon Shutdown, Small Government Rings Triumphant


Congratulations proponents of small government, you won. The government shutdown on October 1, 2013 is your V-Day. The battle to reduce the scope and size of the federal government is no longer a radical fight — it is now the norm. The argument has shifted so far in its favor that the question is no longer one of small government versus big, but rather one of just how far we can go. And the answer: the first government shutdown in 17 years. Because what’s better than a small government? No government at all.

How did we get to this declaration of victory for small government? Because for some, the government was never small enough. Worried about inflating government deficits and a growing national debt? Well, here are some across-the-board cuts that slash billions of dollars from the federal deficit. And yet, when the sequester "worked," when deficits began shrinking and the Congressional Budget Office had to keep scaling its deficit predictions down, the government could still be smaller. There was always more to cut, more government spending run amok; the belt could be tighter still, because those on the witch hunt for government waste, those screaming for small government, had gotten the taste for it. They had been appeased, and they wanted more.

Because when you give a mouse a cookie, well, you know.

The funny thing about the far-right's quest for the smallest of governments is that despite their great success, it's still a pretty unpopular fight. Though they may claim to speak for the American people, the reality is quite the opposite. A wide majority of Americans (and by wide, we mean 72% of those polled) oppose shutting down the government to stop the "big government" harbinger that is the Affordable Care Act. People are overwhelmingly frustrated and angry with the federal government. Cutting programs and forcing shutdowns isn't helping that. Nearly 90% of Americans disapprove of what Congress is doing. And what are they doing? Shrinking the government as fast as they can.

Because as lovely as "small government" might sound, when push comes to shove, no one really wants to cut anything. Sure, 70% of people want to reduce the federal deficit. Who doesn't? A budget deficit sounds like a very bad thing (even if it isn't). But ask Americans about specific cuts, and no one has a clue. For nearly every program surveyed, Americans wanted to maintain spending levels, or even increase spending. Because support for small government, like support for repealing the ACA, is in the abstract, no one pays any attention to what it would really mean. Once you get into specifics, people change their tune. The details of small government are astoundingly unpopular.

But it doesn't matter how unpopular it is. The small government movement has succeeded in changing the way — even on an international level — we view federal spending. Federal policy is enacted to spend less, not more. Sequestration cuts and government shutdowns become par for the course. And a fringe movement now sets the agenda. This is how the government stops operating like a government.

The fight for small government has been, undeniably, wildly successful. The conversation isn't one of how much we need to spend. Congress now bickers over the least amount of spending possible to still have some semblance of a federal government. Except on Tuesday, even that was thrown out of the window.