October 21, 2011

There is one thing most Americans have long agreed upon, no matter what else divides them: Big is bad. The Occupy Wall Street protests and the tea party movement both oppose what they see as the big, out-of control forces devouring America.

But there is no agreement on the identity of the beast that must be slain. The tea party decries Big Government as the enemy. (“Starve the beast!” the anti-tax ideologues proclaim.) The Occupy Wall Street movement wants to slay Big Business, along with the forces of greed, consumerism and excess.

These are but the latest salvos in a long-running conflict. Our nation’s history can be seen as an enduring civil war over whether Big Government or Big Business is the primary enemy of the people. The classic American question was best verbalized by a displaced tenant farmer in John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” — “Who can we shoot?”

We are met, as it were, on a great battlefield of that war. The near-term fortunes of the nation, the economy, the White House and the political parties are likely to be determined by the outcome of the current struggle between those opposing corporate greed, on the one hand, and those fighting deficits, taxes and government regulation, on the other. This struggle is playing out both in Washington and on the streets of cities around the country.

Big Government — in the form of the far-away monarchy in London — was the initial focus of Americans’ loathing of bigness. That mistrust of Big Government continued through the early republic, when Alexander Hamilton sought to align the interests of Big Government and the wealthy, but most of the American public sided with the anti-elitism of Thomas Jefferson. Later, Andrew Jackson cast himself and the new Democratic Partyas the champions of the people against wealthy predators. (Jackson’s version of the beast to be killed was the Second Bank of the United States, which he described as a hydra-headed monster.)

The rise of genuine Big Business in the late 19th century provided an alternate target for America’s hostility to bigness. In the 1880s and 1890s, populists began to see democratic government as a tool that ordinary people could use to defend themselves against what they usually referred to simply as “the Interests.”

Progressives took up the practice of employing Hamiltonian means to achieve Jeffersonian ends, utilizing government as an ally of the people against the excesses of Big Business. Theodore Roosevelt denounced the “malefactors of great wealth” and argued that Big Government was needed to combat Big Business.

It was Roosevelt’s cousin Franklin who transformed government into the champion of the people against Big Business, which had become more notorious than ever in the era of the Great Depression. FDR changed public attitudes toward Big Government by demonstrating that, under his administration, the government was not indifferent to the problems of the people and that it was no longer an instrument of corporate interests. “Government by organized money is just as dangerous as government by organized mob,” he proclaimed in 1936, as he welcomed the hatred of Big Money.

The person most responsible for making government notorious again was Richard Nixon, who began the long process of redirecting the anti-bigness sentiments of the hinterlands away from Wall Street and instead toward Washington, Harvard and Hollywood. The key moment in Nixon’s reidentification of conservatism with the common man and the shifting of elite identity came in his 1952 “Checkers” speech, delivered while he was the Republican vice presidential candidate. In the speech, he declared that his wife, Pat, “doesn’t have a mink coat, but she does have a respectable Republican cloth coat.”

Still, Big Government grew in popularity with Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs in the 1960s, and Johnson encapsulated the case that Big Government is a positive force when he declared during the 1964 campaign: “We’re in favor of a lot of things, and we’re against mighty few.” That year, 77 percent of Americans said they trusted their government.

But the innumerable deceits of Johnson and Nixon eventually combined to destroy that trust. By 1974, public confidence in government had fallen to 36 percent. In 1978, Jimmy Carter correctly said that “for some citizens, the government has almost become like a foreign country.” Ronald Reagan ran against government while striving to restore the reputation of Big Business, and President George W. Bush continued both trends.

In the 30 years since Reagan’s election, the success of Big Money in the battle of the beasts has been extraordinary. For all the hue and cry from the right about taxation, federal tax receipts actually fell by 4.1 percentage points as a proportion of GDP. Over the same years, the share of national income going to the richest 1 percent has more than doubled, from 10 percent to 21 percent. That is what has given rise to the “We are the 99 percent” protests.

The collapse of the economy in 2008 provided an opportunity to restore public faith in Big Government, similar to what occurred in the 1930s after that economic catastrophe. All the ingredients were there for President Obama and his party to make it happen; they should be winning this latest Battle of the Beasts easily.

But they aren’t — in part because of the relentless propaganda from the right, but also because the American public has yet to see the government as being on its side against the Interests on Wall Street, and has yet to see evidence that what Franklin Roosevelt declared in 1936 is again the case: “Your government is still on the same side of the street with the Good Samaritan and not with those who pass by on the other side.”

What would reestablish Americans’ faith in government — and what the Occupy movement is implicitly seeking — is the separation of corporation and state. Perhaps the movement will give the president and his party the resolve to make it happen — or at least to wage the battle.

Robert S. McElvaine, a professor of history at Millsaps College, is the author of “The Great Depression: America, 1929-1941.”

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