The big business campaign that shaped 40 years of Republican rhetoric
Meanwhile, despite vehement denials from other Republicans have insisted that Social Security and Medicare — two of the most successful federal programs — must be slashed, with former Vice President Mike Pence suggesting that Social Security may need to be handed over to the private sector. And some Republicans are even making efforts to reverse child labor laws.
This type of attack has become the norm for Republicans in the four decades since President Ronald Reagan proclaimed in his first inaugural address, “Government is not the solution to our problem; Government is the problem.”
What explains the persistence of this attack on government – even on popular programs like Social Security?
The answer lies in a centuries-long campaign by conservative business leaders to develop and sell a pro-market, anti-government doctrine.
This propaganda push aimed to protect corporate profits and privileges by convincing Americans that what was good for business owners was good for all citizens. It was based on the idea that economic freedom was the basis of political freedom, so any compromise of the former – even for a good cause like ending child labor or saving millions of lives in the midst of a pandemic – threatened the very foundations of freedom and the american lifestyle. Instead of fearing big business, these executives argued, Americans should fear big government. In the 1980s, Republicans adopted these arguments and changed American politics in ways that continue to define the country today.
This industrial campaign began in the early 20th century. The issue of rural electrification was an example of how it worked. By the 1920s, the power industry had successfully electrified many major American cities, but refused to electrify large parts of rural America because it was not profitable to do so.
Advocates of rural electrification pointed out that the public sector in neighboring Canada provides electricity to everyone in Ontario at a lower cost than across the border in New York. A trade group called the National Electric Light Association (NELA) responded to these arguments by running a disinformation campaign that misrepresented electricity cost data and paid academics to rewrite textbooks and alter college curricula to sell the story that government programs were inefficient were threatening freedom.
This stalled change for a decade, until the federal government stepped in and electrified rural America as part of a public works program aimed at boosting the economy during the Great Depression.
Big business, led by the National Association of Manufacturers, then America’s largest retail group, spent millions of dollars on a campaign called the “Tripod of Freedom” to fight this and other New Deal programs.
It asserted that “Free Enterprise” was one of three inseparable core principles that animated the nation’s founding – meaning that the New Deal threatened the very foundations of American democracy. But the “Tripod of Freedom” was pure invention: free enterprise was not mentioned in the Declaration of Independence or in the Constitution.
Despite these NAM efforts, the success of the New Deal in the 1930s and the government-driven war mobilization in the early 1940s pushed anti-government thinking to the fringes of American political life. Americans had seen the government – not the private sector – bailing out the economy and helping those struggling during the Great Depression.
Until the 1950s and 1960s, anti-government thinking remained far from the mainstream, even among Republicans. As President Dwight D. Eisenhower explained to his brother, “If any political party tried to abolish Social Security, unemployment insurance, and labor laws and farm programs, you would hear nothing from that party.” Eisenhower noted that the number of people who are championing such ideas are “negligible” and they are “stupid”. When Congress introduced Medicare in 1965, 80 percent of Americans approved.
But the campaign to spread the gospel of markets and free enterprise never faltered. In fact, it has been promoted in both the private sector and popular culture.
One of the best examples came in the 1950s when Reagan hosted the popular television show General Electric Theater. Each week, the future president nurtured tens of millions of Americans with didactic stories about individualism and free enterprise.
He also traveled the country on behalf of GE, visiting factories and giving speeches to promote the company’s anti-government vision. Reagan’s mentor was GE CEO Lemuel Ricketts Boulware, whose anti-union tactics were so extreme that they earned a name: Boulwarism. Reagan joined GE as a pro-union Democrat and emerged as an anti-government Republican, with powerful supporters in corporate America who helped lay the foundations of both his own political career and the rise of Republican anti-government extremism.
These arguments gained new ground when the manufacturing economy sputtered in the 1970s, fueled by an organized and well-funded business effort. Soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell laid out the plan for this push in a famous 1971 memo admonishing corporate leaders to try to maximize both their profits and their power by adopting a series of Build institutions to fight unions and government regulation. Powell asserted that corporations must “assiduously cultivate” political power and then use it “aggressively and decisively.”
The following year, 1972, leading CEOs founded the Business Roundtable, which helped transform leaders into a culturally visible and influential force.
Corporations opened public affairs bureaus, many of which ran anti-regulatory publicity campaigns, hired dedicated lobbyists, and formed political action committees. They even began funding, and in some cases founding, organizations, institutions, and think tanks that appeared independent—but retained intricate ties to the corporate world—to promote a pro-business message.
One of these allies was the Heritage Foundation, founded in 1973 with funding from beer magnate Joseph Coors “to formulate and promote public policy based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, [and] Individual freedom.”
This network of think tanks and organizations helped catapult Reagan into the presidency. Many of his policy proposals stemmed directly from a 1980 Heritage Foundation report, Mandate for Leadership, whose premise was that America was facing a “crisis of over-regulation” that threatened “to destroy the private competitive free-market economy , which it was originally intended to protect .”
This ignores the fact that these regulations are primarily intended to remedy the failures of the free market economy, but not protection and that the business community had largely opposed anticompetitive regulations such as the Sherman and Clayton antitrust laws.
Still, many voters agreed that America, plagued by stagflation, the uncomfortable combination of recessionary forces and high inflation, was in crisis in 1980. Guided by these conservative business forces, the idea of blaming the bad economy on one thing – over-regulation and also lots of government rather than a complex combination of social, historical and economic factors – turned out to be an election-winning strategy.
Reagan’s victory gave market fundamentalists an opportunity to put their ideology into practice. The new president worked diligently to convince Americans to hate “big government.” But he didn’t frame it as a story of disgust. Instead, in the spirit of Hollywood Westerns and General Electric Theater, Reagan told American history as a parable of individual success in a free enterprise system—a love story about capitalism.
This strategy worked as well as any of its supporters could hope for.
By the 1990s, even many Democrats had embraced pro-market, anti-government rhetoric. In his 1996 State of the Union address, President Bill Clinton proclaimed that the “era of big government” was over.
But far from solving America’s problems, this governance philosophy has fueled serious problems like declining life expectancy and the climate crisis.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, climate-related disasters will cost the United States $165 billion in 2022 alone. While life expectancy continues to increase in most other affluent countries, American life expectancy fell in 2015 for the first time since World War I, due in large part to suicide, drug overdoses and liver disease – what have been dubbed “deaths of desperation”. .”
Yet despite this evidence that the ideas they have been pushing for 40 years have often proven bad for workers, consumers and the environment, Republicans keep doubling down. But their demands for more equality ignore historical reality: unregulated and underregulated markets have long fueled serious problems for which there is a clear solution: government action. This is as true in 2023 as it was when it enacted federal action to electrify rural America in the 1930s.