What Terrifies Conservatives?

Rick Perlstein has a piece in the latest issue of Democracy Journal that takes a historical look at how right wing propaganda has been developed over the last century to the point where it is a smoothly running machine today. One key point Perlstein makes is, “Historically, nothing has terrified conservatives so much as efficient, effective, activist government.” This bears out in an important way today in right wing attacks on public sector workers around the country, at state, federal, and municipal levels.

Governing well in the interests of the broad majority brings compounding political benefits for the party of government. Consider the famous December 2, 1993 memo by William Kristol entitled “Defeating President Clinton’s Health Care Proposal.” The notion of government-guaranteed health care had to be defeated, he said, rather than compromised with, or else: “It will revive the reputation of the party that spends and regulates, the Democrats, as the generous protector of middle-class interests. And it will at the same time strike a punishing blow against Republican claims to defend the middle class by restraining government.” Kristol wrote on behalf of an organization called the Project for a Republican Future. The mortal fear is that if government delivers the goods, the Republicans have no future.

The fear easily escalates unto hysteria: Activist government is a fraud in its very essence, an awesomely infernal political perpetual motion machine. “THE LIBS PLAN TO DESTROY US,” runs a recent email circulating widely on the right. The text is mostly made up of a list of government departments, agencies, and programs, “many with mutable locations through the nation.” It goes on to explain, “The people employed in these offices generally earn 31% more than their civilian counterparts.” (In fact, controlling for education and experience, state and local public employees make less than their private-sector counterparts, according to a September 2010 report from the Economic Policy Institute.) “All are supported 100% by the American taxpayer employed in the private profit producing sector.” The hysteria cannot allow, for example, that more private profit has been created out of thin air by a government invention like the Internet than any in the history of man: “they are all parasites.” This essay now arriving in thousands of ordinary, everyday email inboxes concludes: “Before the 50’s the Democratic party was very much the party of the average working man. . . . [Then] the socialists in the party realized that one way for them to gain power and influence was by creating jobs . . . GOVERNMENT JOBS.”

The baseline fear of government actually working is an important guiding post in understanding the right’s prolific attacks on public workers. Perlstein does great work explaining this phenomena, both in historical and contemporary contexts.

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