The Era of 'Small Government' Must End: Reflections on the Capitol Insurrection

James Goodwin

Jan. 20, 2021

The pro-Trump insurrection that took place at the United States Capitol on January 6 was the most serious threat to the rule of law in our country in well over a century. Unless we fully grapple with the conditions and causes that gave rise to it, this threat will linger, waiting for the next spark to reignite it.

The Capitol insurrection is the predictable culmination of decades of self-serving attacks on "government." Especially since the Reagan administration, conservative lawmakers have increasingly amassed political fortunes by stoking the anger and resentment of millions of Americans who have been left behind by an ever more lopsided economy.

Their formula rests on a self-fulfilling prophesy: Attack government effectiveness to justify deep cuts to government functions, which in turn fuels new attacks on government and new calls for even deeper cuts.

Ordinarily, our free press would be responsible for halting this vicious cycle by exposing the lies needed to keep it in motion. But the Fourth Estate has been short-circuited by the rise of an all-encompassing conservative media ecosystem.

A wide variety of media outlets quickly discovered that reinforcing their audiences' prior, albeit mistaken, beliefs is far more lucrative than the traditional media business model. This spurred a vicious cycle of its own as conservative audiences gravitated to media outlets that peddle the most audacious content, such as the "Pizzagate" conspiracy theory or the absurd claims that Obama wasn't born in the United States. Significantly, it was these outlets' relentless, baseless attacks on the legitimacy of Biden's electoral victory that helped incite the insurrection. Audiences responded by pushing this content further to the radical and sometimes violent fringes of society.

Our path forward

The response to this crisis — our path forward — is not and cannot be more small government. The era of "small government" is over.

Instead, we must re-learn the lessons on which our country was founded — that our government isn't a barrier to the pursuit of our individual and shared happiness but rather a powerful vehicle to advancing it. The Founders didn't write the U.S. Constitution just so today's generation could tear it down. They intended it as a platform that future generations could build on and make their own contributions to in our ongoing work to form "a more perfect union."

In contrast to today's pervasive and self-defeating "small government" rhetoric, our Constitution is, at its core, a vision of an energetic, responsive, and inclusive government. (Admittedly, though, its definition of "inclusion" was unjustifiably narrow when it was enacted, a problem we have been only slowly rectifying ever since.)

How can we make good on that vision today? To start, we must embrace as legitimate the role of government in remedying the socially destabilizing sources of economic and political inequality.

Few Americans closely follow the news out of Washington, D.C., but many are aware that a narrow few have rigged the rules in their favor at the expense of the broader public.

Here's the rub: Advocates of small government have been most instrumental in rigging these rules — and have been more than ready to harness the resulting public disgust to propel their own political ambitions. Lawmakers must now not only "unrig" the rules but also set the country on a path to a more fair, just, and sustainable distribution of political and economic power.

Beyond that, lawmakers must begin bridging the divide between us and our government. We must once again see our government as ours — as part of "us" and not some distant "them."

Reinvigorate government

There are many ways to do so, but a critical one is reinvigorating our system of social supports. This includes strengthening various financial assistance programs that alleviate hardships that everyday Americans experience when they are the victims of misfortune. We must also recommit to strengthening our system of regulatory safeguards, which will help shield us all from misfortune.

The benefits of these social support programs are highly visible; shoring them up will go a long way toward restoring our faith and confidence in government.

Just as important, these programs can provide a platform for restoring a sense of connectedness and shared purpose between us and our government. That is because their implementation necessarily involves ongoing interactions between us and public servants. This is especially true of the regulatory system, which is unique among our democratic institutions in that it invites Americans to directly collaborate with government officials in the formulation and implementation of that govern our economy and society. In this way, a reinvigorated government can even have the propitious effect of enabling ordinary Americans to feel as if they have "reclaimed" our government.

As an attack on the rule of law, the Capitol insurrection hit us hard here at CPR. In the weeks since, our Member Scholars, all of whom are law professors, have had the unenviable task of reassuring their students — the next generation of legal guardians — that the rule of law is still worth fighting for in this country and that damage done can be repaired.

More fundamentally, though, it strikes at the essential belief on which CPR was founded — that through the rule of law, we can work together to improve our lives and those of future generations.

Despite it all, I have faith that our democracy can emerge from this attack better and stronger than ever. For more than a dozen years, I've dedicated my career to advancing CPR's vision of an America in which all of us are invited to come together and promote our shared values — such as fairness, equity, and justice — through better governance and better laws. It is clear to me that in that vision lies the path forward for restoring the rule of law and healing the wounds of January 6. Let's get to work.

Subscribe to CPR Resources

Read More by James Goodwin
Posted in:
CPR HOMEPAGE
More on CPR's Work & Scholars.
Feb. 26, 2021

Three Ways of Dodging Responsibility

Feb. 25, 2021

Clean Water Is a Human Right. Let’s Start Treating It Like One.

Feb. 24, 2021

Baton Rouge Advocate Op-ed: Louisiana Should Get Serious About Its Climate Crisis

Feb. 23, 2021

The Hill Op-ed: Biden Has the Power to Restore Good Governance

Feb. 22, 2021

Biden Elevates Science Advisor to Cabinet-Level Job

Feb. 22, 2021

Lessons from the Texas Grid Disaster: Planning and Investing for a Different Future

Feb. 19, 2021

Building Thriving Communities on a Resilient Planet