Pay any attention to American politics and soon you will become familiar with the term small government, and quickly thereafter will learn of its association with the Republican Party. For seemingly as long as the term has been coined, Republicans have clung to it like no other. The association at its surface makes sense and is generally founded in reality. Republicans consistently rail for lower taxes, less government regulation and greater personal liberty. More often than not they oppose proposed social and welfare programs and are usually reticent of government bailouts.
The harsh reality, however, is that Republicans have historically had no issue embracing big government, so long as it fulfills their political ambitions and ideological preferences. Take for example the death penalty, abortion, gay marriage, the police state, etc. Sure, Democrats have little problem embracing big or small government depending on their political well-being and policy preferences. The difference, however, is that they also do not make a point to consistently label themselves as pro-small or big government; it is not a key identity they cling to. One would be hard-pressed to find a campaigning democrat promising to be a “big government liberal,” or a small government one, at that.
On top of traditional hot button topics, one issue, in particular, has especially exposed the pick-and-choose nature of the Republican party concerning big government: COVID-19. For much of the pandemic, Republicans have stayed true to their ancestral small government instincts. At the start of the crisis, Republican leaders were often reluctant to impose stay-at-home orders and were much quicker to lift them than their democratic counterparts. When Republican-led states faced rising COVID-19 cases, public health experts pleading for precautions such as mandating masks were often met with a cold shoulder. They have frequently decried any directives from Democratic politicians aimed at private businesses, and have tried to make the case that they are placing an emphasis on reducing government control over citizens’ decisions throughout. Of course, all of this implementation of small government policy was supported by a majority of the Republican base. When that support for a hands-off government policy waned, Republicans’ small government DNA could often be seen quickly disappearing.
Last week, we saw just that. Texas Gov. Greg Abbot signed an executive order banning all entities from implementing COVID-19 vaccine mandates. The ban included private businesses, something his previous bans had avoided doing. Though Abbott’s advocates tried to pass the bill as a roundabout way to limit government intervention, when the bill actually did the opposite, the true reasoning of the bill was accurately described by White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki when she gave a one-word response to why she felt the bill had been passed: “Politics.” Abbott simply feels he can score a cheap political win back home, something he likely has placed a paramount focus on given the primary heat he is facing from those even to the right of him ideologically.
Of course, a Republican governor telling a private business what they can and can not do, especially when it comes to protecting the health and safety of their customers as they see fit, is the exact opposite of small-government conservatism. The ban is especially awkward when it’s pointed out, as the Texas Tribune did, that in August a top Abbott spokesperson claimed “Private businesses don’t need the government running their business.” Not only that, but in March, Abbott stated that businesses were free to implement additional safety measures as they saw fit.
Republicans nationwide have issued similar restrictions on private business: earlier this year Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an order that made it illegal for any business to require a COVID-19 vaccine passport, a policy that many other conservatively governed states have also followed. These actions have less to do with sound conservative reasoning, and more to do with playing to the party’s base. Even policies generally thought to be promoting small government by increasing personal liberty, such as banning mask mandates, have questionable undertones. Is it really a small government policy for a state governor to tell local schools what they can and can not do regarding the health and safety of their students?
With Republicans like Abbott implementing ideologically incoherent policies, the COVID-19 pandemic has only helped to expose the fact that Republicans’ long-held claim to consistent small government actions has served as more of a charade meant to cover their tendency to bend to the political winds, rather than a deep-rooted ideological philosophy.
Devon Hesano is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.