In the conventional view, American politics is a contest between a party of “big” government and a party of “small” government.
You know the clichés. Democrats want a larger role for the state; Republicans want to “drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”
But a glance at the historical record shows that — at least in the postwar period — the size of government was never really the issue. A modern state needs a large, active government. The real political question revolves around the activity itself. It’s about both the scope of government — to whom and for what should it provide? — and its reach. Will the state take a light touch or will it intrude on and control the lives of its citizens?
With this in mind, consider one of the most common criticisms of the current Republican Party: that it stands for nothing other than chaos, dysfunction and a cultlike devotion to President Donald Trump.
But that’s not right. With or without Trump in control, the Republican Party has a clear, well-articulated agenda. It just falls outside the usual categories. It’s not that today’s Republicans have a vision for “big” government or “small” government; it’s that Republicans have a vision for intrusive government, aimed at the most vulnerable people in our society.
In Iowa, for example, Republicans want to kick as many people as possible off the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as SNAP, citing fraud and misuse. The Republican state legislature, Kyle Swenson reported in The Washington Post, is “poised to approve some of the nation’s harshest restrictions on SNAP. They include asset tests and new eligibility guidelines.”
In the preceding fiscal year, according to a 2022 report from the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals, the state disqualified 195 SNAP recipients out of a total enrollment of 287,000 people, for a fraud rate of 0.07 percent.
Nonetheless, Iowa will spend nearly $18 million in administrative costs over the next three years to snoop into the finances of every SNAP recipient in the state, all to make sure that a working parent or a struggling senior doesn’t get $1 more than they deserve in food assistance.
Of course, the crown jewel of the Republican effort to build a more intrusive, domineering government is the set of laws passed to ban or sharply limit abortion, regulate gender expression and otherwise restrict bodily autonomy. These laws, by their very nature, create a web of state surveillance that brings the government into the most private reaches of an adult’s life, or a child’s.
In Idaho this month Republicans passed a law explicitly restricting out-of-state travel for abortions if the patient is a minor. Anyone caught helping a pregnant minor leave the state for abortion can be punished with up to five years in prison. Helping here means not just giving a minor a ride; it’s giving her money or connecting her with assistance or organizing the doctor’s visit.
In Kansas, Republicans overrode a veto from Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, to pass a bill that bans transgender athletes from girls’ and women’s sports, from kindergarten through college. Although there’s no language in the bill to explain how schools would enforce the ban, its sponsor said that enforcement would occur through “sports physicals” or some other kind of bodily inspection by a doctor or nurse who would presumably be acting with the imprimatur of the state.
There are many more examples of intrusive government than just those two. To qualify for a “rape or incest” exception under a new six-week abortion ban Gov. Ron DeSantis signed last week in Florida, victims must show proof that they’ve been victimized. In the absence of proper documentation, Florida says, there is no way to obtain care.
The state of Missouri has put itself between patients and doctors and effectively banned gender-affirming care for adults within its borders, and Kentucky has restricted the ability of its residents to access medication abortion.
You could say that there is limited government in these conservative states, as long as you live the way Republicans want you to live.
Not everyone is subject to the Republican vision of intrusive government. There are vanishingly few limits, in most Republican-led states, on the ability to buy, sell, own and carry firearms. And working on behalf of some employers and other business interests, Republicans in at least 11 states have taken steps to loosen limits on the ability of children to work in factories, meatpacking facilities and other such places.
When it comes to the demands of capital or the prerogatives of the right kind of Americans, Republicans believe, absolutely, in the light touch of a “small” government that stays out of the way. But when it comes to Americans deemed deviant for their poverty or their transgressions against a traditional code of patriarchal morality, Republicans believe, just as fervently, that the only answer is the heaviest and most meddlesome hand of the state.
This gets to one of the most important truths of political life. At times, the state will treat different groups in different ways. For those of us with more egalitarian sentiments, the goal is to make that treatment as fair and as equal as possible. For those whose sentiments run in the other direction, the task is to say who gets the worst and most degrading aspects of the state’s attention and who gets its concierge service.