The 1970s and 1980s represented watershed decades in respect of intellectual and ideological debates on the shape, size, scope and role of American government. These debates were primarily influenced by two things. First of all there was Nixon’s Watergate scandal which shook confidence in the institution of the Presidency itself and then there were the landslide victories of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984, who stood on a platform of reducing the size of government.
Now though, things are different. America has put its unique debates of the past to rest and has become a bit more like everyone else.
Richard Nixon was in many ways the most intelligent man to hold the office of US President in the 20th century if not beyond. He had a thorough grasp of world affairs, economics, political gamesmanship and diplomacy. He was also a serial liar, a crook and a man famous for his ‘dirty tricks’ against any and all opponents, including those who were seemingly inconsequential. It has to be said however, that compared to Hillary Clinton’s blood-soaked and crime soaked road to Aleppo, Nixon’s crooked behaviour beings to appear like that of St. Paul on his road to Damascus.
Thanks to brave journalists, Nixon’s Watergate scandal was exposed and it ended both his presidency and his political career in 1974. At that time many spoke about the role of US President being ‘too big for one man’. Some even argued for a kind of Parliamentary system whereby the role of President would be reduced.
This however changed in the 1980s when Ronald Reagan was elected. In spite of being a commanding figure with great personal charisma, Reagan’s mantra was that of ‘smaller government’. Upon leaving office he said that “As government expands, liberty contracts”. His speeches were rife with American exceptionalism, stating how only in America does government derive its power from the people and not the other way round. The idea of government being subservient to the people and the more specific idea of a social contract was actually invented before the US became an independent country, but that’s beside the point in respect of this particular analysis.
Unlike Reagan’s friend Margaret Thatcher who spoke of the benefits of privatisation vis-à-vis state ownership, in America state ownership was never particularly popular even amongst the centre-left. Instead, the question was of fewer regulations from central government or more regulations. This dovetailed into the debate on state rights versus federal power. Reagan and his followers were unambiguous in their advocating for fewer regulations.
These arguments whose tone Reagan set, persisted through every election since Reagan left office in 1988; every election until 2016 that is.
Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton represent big government. Both want to be powerful leaders who seek to use the state as the main impetus for implementing their ideas. Neither engage in debates on contracting state power, cutting regulations or challenging the idea that great reform comes from the top.
In this sense the almost quintessentially American debate, certainly in terms of rhetoric, about big versus small government has come to an end. America has finally buried Reagan’s ghost after almost 30 years of Reaganism defining the terms of American political debate.
This is less a reflection of how American politics has change than a reflection of how America has changed. As America slowly declines as a superpower, yet simultaneously seeks to maintain or even increase its influence in the world, voters realise that such large questions can only be solved by steadfast federal and moreover, presidential leadership. The issues of state and local rights seem rather non-poignant at times when war, security and economic collapse are the main concerns of the day.
Clinton supporters realise that it takes a strong president (however insane an individual) to start a world war. Trump supporters realise that it takes a strong president to halt such a road to war and shift America’s foreign policy. Clinton supporters realise that it takes a strong president to sign global trade deals which would forever end America’s position as a manufacturing power. Trump supporters realise that it takes a strong president to stop these deals, repeal existing deals like NAFTA and renegotiate a settlement to force companies to bring jobs back to the country.
Both candidates talk about law and order and social change as presidential issues, something which would infuriate if not frighten Reagan supporters. But few are challenging the new big government reality, they are instead enthusiastically engaged on whether they want Hillary or Trump’s style of big government.
In this sense America has a clear right versus left argument as much of the world tends to do during elections, this contrasts greatly with erstwhile arguments about the size and reach of government. Hillary Clinton is a big government globalist with an appetite for foreign wars and interventions. Trump is a Taft style conservative with his America first, anti-war foreign policy and his economic protectionism. Ron Paul style free trade isn’t up for debate nor is Ronald Reagan’s arguments about cutting regulation. Frankly, Barry Goldwater’s ideas on the government defending liberty are widely absent too. The government is now defending citizens from Islamic terrorism rather than helping to defend the more abstract concept of liberty against domestic encroachment.
As America becomes less powerful and less confident, she is simultaneously becoming less like America. She is becoming like the rest of the world she has ruled for so long.