As Government Grows, Divisions Multiply
Polarization is not the cause of government dysfunction, but a symptom of it.
America is deeply polarized, increasingly split into two, roughly equal, political camps. Each side blames the other for causing the situation. In a speech last week, President Biden accused Republicans of being a threat to democracy itself.
Violence and threats of political violence are growing. Social media echo chambers and “disinformation” are the problem according to many. Governmental dysfunction is caused by this polarization, the story goes.
But polarization is not the cause of government dysfunction, but rather a symptom of it. Government has strayed far from its job of providing public goods, like law and order, national defense, and public parks.
Government today is the largest landowner, the biggest employer, the largest player in numerous industries, and regulates practically every aspect of daily life.
As it has tried to do more and more, it has spread itself too thin, becoming unfocused and less effective. Government plans fail more often and cannot seem to do the simple things anymore.
Consider the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Over the past two decades, its budget and payroll have dramatically increased, and it has expanded far from its core mission to address issues like the “climate crisis” and “reducing racial disparities.”
Lack of focus leads to failure. Failure leads to doubts about government. With more money being spent, with more distractions, and with more mistakes, more political fights are inevitable. Polarization is the inevitable result.
Both Republicans and Democrats point to government failures, but with opposite implications — Republicans to reduce government, and Democrats arguing we need more. The bigger the government, the more failure there will be and the more there will be to fight about.
For the record, the government has never been bigger. The Biden Administration plans to spend $6.7 trillion in 2026, a nearly four-fold increase from the $1.4 trillion spent in 1970 (in today’s dollars).
Population increased only about 60 percent over this period. When President Nixon was in office, the federal government spent less than $7,000 per person. Today, it spends almost $21,000 per person.
As the government grows, its actions implicate more aspects of the lives of everyday Americans. Fights about the minimum wage and tax rates are one thing, but when the government starts to dictate more deeply personal matters, we can expect more and more intense battles. When everything is “political,” political wars will rage.
Government-run health care means deciding whether to pay for sexual reassignment surgeries. Government-run schools mean deciding what books can be in the library. Laws about sports means deciding whether trans women can swim against women. More regulations about employment mean every job decision is now a political time bomb.
As the government decides these matters more and more, shifting decision making from individuals, businesses, families, and local communities to the state and national level, it is no wonder that fights grow more intense.
When government actions impact individuals’ most sacred beliefs about who they are and the lives they want to live, polarization is inevitable.
Both parties use these cultural wedge issues as instruments to obtain power. At stake is control over the allocation of $6.7 trillion, as well as the ability to use the government’s monopoly on violence to impose a set of preferences about how to live one’s life.
Power corrupts, and those seeking it use outrage and polarization as a tool. One solution is to restrain the size and scope of government action.
Republicans talk a good game here, but in truth, there is no correlation between GOP power and less government. Federal spending has increased constantly over the past six decades, regardless of the party in power or whether the government is divided.
The GOP swing to populism/nationalism also suggests that future Republican administrations may be more focused on redirecting government action rather than reducing it.
Even worse, the American system of checks and balances is supposed to act as a bulwark against creeping government power.
Politicians have figured out how to get around this, including legislating in big chunks during crises and by delegating power to less accountable administrative agencies. In this world, checks and balances, as well as the power of civil servants, make undoing government all but impossible.
There is no magical unifier out there. Americans need to realize they are being used. Our outrage is the lifeblood of their will to power. Dialing back the hot takes, the name calling, and trying to “own” the other side will not be easy. Nor will trying to rebuild our faith in each other from the bottom up. But it is the work that must be done.
Mr. Henderson is a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, lecturer at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, and a research fellow of the Becker-Friedman Institute. He serves as a board member and advisor to numerous start-up companies, and is a founder of Heaton Henderson LLC, a governance and corporate litigation consultancy.