"Shrinking government" in American political discourse has, for decades now, meant the following. We enlarge the government's budget through taxation and penalties on working people and through borrowing and printing money. We not only tax the wealthy and corporations less, but we massively subsidize them with public funds. We move away from taxes and fees meant to limit the damage greed can do to the world, and we defund regulation of and law enforcement against the oligarchy. We transfer an ever greater share of the budget to the military. We expand the domestic and international surveillance-police states while merging the two. This, again, we call "shrinking government."
"Shrinking government" means a larger and more oppressive but less representative and less useful government. The military gets the money and gets privatized (employs non-competitive corporations working exclusively for the government). Education and public services get slashed and get privatized. Vote counting gets privatized. The privatized money gets to flow into election campaigns. The districts are re-gerrymandered with the latest modern technology. The media conglomerates get a monopoly and the monopoly limits electoral possibilities. "Shrinking government" means shrinking popular influence on government while government grows. But it grows in its ability to wage wars, occupy territories, and subsidize coal, oil, nuclear, and gas. It shrinks in its ability to give people anything in return for their taxes and fees. If this process continues it must result in ever greater repression or in revolt.
But why is THAT called "shrinking government"? It doesn't look like shrinking government.
It's called that in part because there is a movement from the right that talks about shrinking the government to a size that will permit drowning it in a bathtub. But a good portion of this movement wants to shrink everything except the military-police state, which is the most difficult thing to shrink. And the Republican politicians who co-opt this movement want to enlarge the military and police.
Perhaps more importantly, the Democrats and their loyal pseudo-activist groups want to protect or enlarge education and public services, but when it comes to the military they either want to enlarge it or are content to step aside and watch it grow. Advocates of tearing down everything useful in the government are winning, while advocates of making greater public use of government are losing, and so we talk about the "shrinking government" while the "security" budget balloons to $1.2 trillion per year.
I recently complained to the staffers of a large activist organization (which I'll be badgered for not naming, but which I am not naming because this exchange was on a confidential listserve) that they were producing television ads blaming "the Republicans" for everything. They replied that this was in fact a good way to alert the Democrats that if they became as bad as the Republicans they'd be criticized too.
How so, I asked. The Democrats split right down the middle on their votes for the Satan's Sandwich Super-Congress Budget-Destruction Deal. Half of them voted yes and half no. Didn't an ad blaming the Republicans signal to those Democrats who had voted Yes that they would have a free pass up until the moment they called themselves Republicans? Wouldn't it be better to address the government as the people, leave the parties out of it, praise those who did right, and pressure those who did wrong?
Oh no, I was told, nothing critical must be said of the government, because the right-wing position is that government is bad and must be "shrunk"; the good liberal position is that government is good.
But hold on a second, I replied, are you actually suggesting that the government isn't broken? We've got 85% of the country believing correctly that our government is broken, and you want to pretend it's working in order to avoid "shrinking" it?
The reply I received was that I was adopting a right-wing discourse by speaking of "government" in a manner that did not include firefighters and sanitation workers.
We can't notice that our government is destroying the planet as a habitable space, slaughtering people, and impoverishing us because there are still fire fighters who put out fires and sanitation workers who clean streets (even though they sometimes now stand and watch houses burn, and even though they are being defunded by the part of the government that funds and defunds things)? The fact is that the government is broken. Any reality-based politics has to start there. The majority of Americans understand the solution to that problem as creating better government. It's only an obnoxious and intimidating fringe group that believes "government is broken" leads inevitably to "shrink government."
And so, we talk about the "shrinking government" because nobody will talk about the breaking government from the left. Not just groups, but individuals as well, have embedded their souls in the Democratic Party. They can only bring themselves to criticize the Republican Party while maintaining that, after all, the government is doing a pretty good job, even when the government is dominated by Republicans and right-wing Democrats who are at least as far to the right as the Republicans. This incoherence is created by liberal civilians, not presidential broken promises or pre-compromises or lack of resolve.
This is where hurricanes and earthquakes come in. "Shrinking government" is never going to get the thing down to the size that can be drowned in a bathtub, because it keeps growing as it "shrinks." But oil wars, fracking, clean coal, safe nukes, global warming, and the weirding of the weather are going to reach our government where its most sensitive nerves are situated: in its ass. The Pentagon sits along the Potomac River, and that river can do more damage than an airplane. The slaves who built the U.S. Capitol and White House did not employ the latest earthquake-resistant technology. No array of metal-detectors, cancer-radiators, groping guards, or concrete barriers can withstand the quaking of the earth.
When the plagues of locusts reach Washington, no transformation to democracy will immediately result. The billions of dollars lost won't be credited to the renewable-energy side of the public ledger. The coastal homes of the gazillionaires will be rebuilt at public expense. Eric Cantor's district will suck down plenty of socialistic disaster relief. The Pentagon will be protected in ways that New Orleans just doesn't deserve. The machine will be oiled and tuned up and keep on rolling along.
But the chance of the public actively and effectively resisting ( http://october2011.org  ) will increase, and the chance of certain Congress Members finding their consciences unprompted will increase as well.
I'm not hoping for natural disasters; and hoping for natural disasters doesn't actually cause them. I'm suggesting that as they come in greater strength and frequency, we be prepared to speak honestly about what is needed. It's not shrinking or growing the government. It's not rebuilding dreams or retaking parties or winning the future.
What's needed is independent resolve that government of, by, and for the people shall not perish from this earth.