Let me offer an idea. The next time you’re arguing with a conservative (if you never argue with conservatives, you should try it sometime) call yourself a “small-government progressive” or “small-government liberal” and see how they react.
If you call yourself a liberal or progressive, they’ll just dismiss you and everything you have to say immediately. You’ve labeled yourself as their Political Enemy, and in their mind you couldn’t possibly have any worthwhile insight to offer. When you speak they won’t be carefully considering your arguments—they’ll just be fishing through their memories of recent Fox News segments in search of an applicable talking point to counter with.
Of course there are plenty of rational conservatives who are fully capable of independent thought—I’m referring now only to a certain type of right-wing ideologue who rely on the Rush Limbaughs, Bill O’Reillys, and Glenn Becks of the world to do their thinking for them. If you call yourself a “progressive” they’ll dismiss you, but if you attach the “small-government” caveat, it’ll make them blink. They may be conditioned to hate the word “progressive” but they’re also conditioned to feel warm and fuzzy whenever the word “small” is placed in front of the word “government”.
Suddenly they’re slightly more receptive. “Small-government progressive?” they’ll ask, their curiosity aroused. Now you’ll have a fair chance to explain your positions, as now their minds will be prepared to agree with at least some of what you have to say.
Start with something that you probably already agree on: bank bailouts. You may be a progressive but you don’t think the government should just hand over hundreds of billions of dollars of taxpayer money to Wall Street banks that crashed the economy with no strings attached. That’s about as bad as Big Government gets, and you’re just as outraged as the conservatives are. (For those of you who’ve been told by the media that most of this money has been repaid, I’d urge you to take a closer look and read about how these banks have managed to “pay us back” with our own money and still deprive us of $165 billion in interest). If you’re feeling confident, you may even want to drop a subtle reminder that the bailout happened under the Bush administration.
Next you can explain that you don’t think the government needs to spend nearly $700 billion a year on defense, about seven times as much as the country with the next highest military budget, China. About 36% of all our tax money goes to the military (more if you count veteran’s benefits, but we like those), which it uses to fight unnecessary wars or maintain unnecessary military bases all around the world. As small-government progressives, we don’t think we need an Empire. The military should only be used for genuine peace-keeping and humanitarian missions (done with international support and cooperation) and for defending the homeland from actual threats—like if England ever decides it wants its colonies back.
You might even get some agreement there, but now it’s time to start making your conservative friend’s head spin. When you say you want small-government, it means you also want the government out of people’s private lives. That means you oppose South Dakota’s new law forcing women to wait 72 hours for an abortion, Oklahoma’s law forcing women seeking an abortion to listen to a detailed description of the fetus before undergoing the procedure, Arizona’s law paving the way to imprison abortion providers, and all of these draconian measures implemented by Republicans to place the government squarely between women and their doctors—essentially giving the government dominion over women’s own bodies. Ask them how they can call themselves “small-government” conservatives and still support laws like this.
Also ask how they can claim to be in favor of “small government” and support anti gay-rights measures taken by Republicans like Governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia who rescinded the right of state workers to be protected from discrimination based on sexual preference. Suddenly what you do in the privacy of your own bedroom is not only the governnment’s business, but they can actually fire you for it. Is that “small government”? How about the countless bills banning gay marriage? Can your conservative friend really call himself a fan of “small government” if he wants the government to tell people who they can and can’t marry?
Or how about marijuana prohibition—laws that tell us what substances we can or can’t put in our own bodies? You might be able to defend these laws on public safety grounds if there weren’t so much evidence that marijuana is safer than alcohol, which remains perfectly legal. In any case, should a “small-government” conservative support measures like that taken by Rick Scott in Florida to force all state employees to undergo frequent drug tests (which I’m sure has nothing to do with his personal financial stake in a drug-testing company)? Apparently the government should be so big that it routinely examines the chemical composition of your own urine.
Perhaps your conservative friend is beginning to realize that he’s not such an advocate for small government after all. To really put him to the test, ask him if he supports the “financial martial law” legislation in Michigan that allows the governor to declare a state of “fiscal emergency” in a town and appoint an unelected manager with the power to break union contracts, dissolve entire municipalities, and nullify boards and councils of elected officials. Had this been proposed by a Democratic governor, wouldn’t he have been up in arms about it? But because it’s a Republican and because it’s being done in the name of “fiscal responsibility” he’s perfectly willing to let Big Government become so big that it can literally override the will of the voting public.
If you’re still having a conversation at this point, there may actually be some room for common ground. Maybe he’s more consistent in his belief in small government than many so-called conservatives today. Can’t you both agree that what’s important is not so much the size of government but its effectiveness? You may call yourself a progressive and he may call himself a conservative, but you can both be in favor of smaller, smarter government.
We progressives don’t want the government to control every aspect of people’s lives—we just want it to exert more control over those aspects of life where some degree of government involvement is essential. Let’s make sure our drinking water is safe, our food isn’t poisoned, our air is clean, our drugs are well-tested, and so on. Let’s make sure there are enough rules and regulations to prevent Wall Street from crashing the economy again. Let’s not hand over $56 billion of taxpayer money in the form of subsidies to oil companies that are already enormously profitable (how is that not Big Government?), but let’s make sure that if we let those companies drill for oil off our shores, they actually have an adequate plan to contain a spill if it occurs.
Progressives don’t want Big Government. We just want a government that does what it’s supposed to do, and if we can resist falling into the black-and-white narrative of Big-Government Liberal vs. Small-Government Conservative that the media traps us in, we might find that we have more in common with our Fox-viewing friends than either we or they would expect.
All you have to do is challenge the framing a little bit to get them to open their minds to a healthy dose of nuance. Progressives aren’t who they think we are, and many of them are not as closed-minded as we might think they are. In any case, middle-class conservatives and middle-class progressives definitely share far more economic interests with one another than we do with the giant corporations and billionaires who own the media and both political parties.
They’ve taken over our government, shrinking it only in the areas that present obstacles to them while expanding it to absurd proportions in all of the areas that benefit them. Conservatives may think they have a monopoly on the concept of “small government”, but my hope is that we start forcing them to think about what they mean by that. Perhaps some of them will realize that when it comes to certain core issues about the role of government, both conservatives and progressives can be on the same side.