Big Government and the Return of Public Confidence

Andrew E. Busch

December 1, 2001

It is a notable fact that public confidence in the institutions of government has risen dramatically since September 11. As the federal government acted decisively to increase security, begin the rebuilding process, and prosecute a war of national defense, poll respondents have given the federal government higher ratings of confidence than at any time since before the deterioration of the Vietnam War. Many commentators have taken this revival of confidence in Washington as a sign that the ground is now prepared for a new upsurge of liberalism.

To assess these claims, however, it is important to remember why confidence in Washington collapsed starting in the mid-1960s, and why it has revived today. It is also useful to recall that one other period—in the 1980s—saw a measured increase in public confidence. When one pieces together the facts surrounding the decline and restoration of confidence in the federal government, it is clear that something is at work other than the heartfelt desire of Americans to revive the Great Society.

Why did confidence collapse in the 1960s and early 1970s? Four factors were paramount. First, the government’s mishandling of the war in Vietnam cast enormous doubt on Washington’s ability to successfully pursue American security. Popular support for the war eroded not primarily because of the antics of bearded protestors who waved Viet Cong flags and burned draft cards; even as late as 1972, George McGovern lost 49 states on a hard-line anti-war platform. Most Americans who turned against the war did so because they came to conclude that it was being waged incompetently. In short, the government demonstrated an inability to define and execute a foreign policy which was coherent, strategically sound, and able to advance American principles or interests.

Second, even as it was bungling policy in Southeast Asia, the federal government simultaneously embarked on a failed adventure of social engineering and constitutionally-dubious expansion of centralized authority in the form of the Great Society and Nixon-era regulation.

Third, government at all levels failed to avert a domestic breakdown of public order and safety. Overall crime and violent crime rates exploded, riots shook scores of colleges and universities, cities burned, and terrorists like the Weather Underground routinely engaged in bank robberies and political bombings. Taken together, these developments meant that government was so busy trying to advance the domestic schemes of liberal utopians that it was unable to carry out its primary function of maintaining public safety at home and national security abroad. It is little wonder that public confidence collapsed.

The coup de grace came when Watergate exposed the corruption of the executive branch, just as the dairy scandals and a variety of other scandals had laid bare the corruption of Congress a few years earlier. While voters took out their disgust on Republicans in 1974 and 1976, the broader point was not lost on citizens. As Lord Acton had once famously said, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. As power shifted to Washington—as the stakes of holding power rose—it was inevitable that corruption would follow in its train. Altogether, it is not difficult to argue that the collapse of public confidence in government in the 1960s and 1970s was a direct consequence of the political triumph of liberalism in that era.

What do the two restorations of confidence have in common? They came at times when conservative presidents—Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and George W. Bush today—insisted on emphasizing national security and strong law enforcement over domestic social engineering. In the 1980s, Reagan cut taxes, promoted decentralization of government, and responded vigorously to the Soviet Cold War threat through a substantial military buildup and an assertive foreign policy. Likewise, Bush has cut taxes, de-emphasized domestic governmental activism except in a few areas like education, and responded forcefully to the terrorist threat at home and abroad.

In both cases, the nation was led by presidents who got the federal government back to the business for which it was formed. They concentrated on the essential, downplayed the peripheral, and understood the difference between the two. They recognized, as did most Americans, that a government that excites the social democrats at the New York Times but cannot defend us from the barbarians at our gates or in our midst does not deserve our confidence. Such an understanding, needless to say, hardly serves as fertile ground for the next explosion of big government.

Andrew E. Busch is an Adjunct Fellow of the John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs and an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Denver, where he specializes in American government and politics. Dr. Busch is the author of Ronald Reagan and the Politics of Freedom. He is also the co-author of The Perfect Tie: The True Story of the 2000 Presidential Election.