Partisan Differences in the Definition of “Big Government”

© Josh Sager – August 2013

In American politics, the term “big government” is used by politicians in order to marginalize the policies of their opposition. Both Democrats and Republicans label opposition policies as big government in order to capitalize upon the negative public opinion which is attached to the label—that said, the Republicans have taken the use of this label at a frequency which has never been seen on the left wing.

No 2 big gov

Here are examples of such uses ofthe term “big government” as an aspersion:

“For those who aspire to live in a high cost, high tax, big government place, our nation and the world offers plenty of options. Vermont, Canada and Venezuela all offer you the opportunity to live in the socialist, big government paradise you long for.”

–Right wing politician Marco Rubio, 2012—


“This year, Virginia Delegate “watch your mouth” Bob Marshall is
championing a really, really, really, really big government conservative
cause. It`s an anti-abortion, anti-birth control personhood bill that
would define a person under essentially the entire code of Virginia state
law as beginning at the moment of conception.”

–Left wing pundit Rachel Maddow, Feb 14th, 2012 —


Despite the ubiquitous use of the term “big government,” there is no concrete definition of what separates a “big government” from a “small government;” the label is entirely subjective and, in most cases (not in cases of anarchism and communism/fascism), just a statement of opinion. In effect, any commentary on the size of government is not empirical, but rather a relative assessment of government size based upon the ideal government size of the person talking.

In addition to being subjective, the size of government is not necessarily consistent across the entirety of the institution—a government can be relatively minimalist in one policy area, while extremely expansive in another.

For example: the United States has a military which spends more than the GDP of smaller countries but has a relatively weak social safety net. On the other hand, the Scandinavian countries have a very strong social safety net but comparably little defense spending.


Which government is “big:” Is it the United States for its huge defense spending and large overall size of the federal government (many offices, workers, and departments) or, is it the Scandinavian countries which have a very robust social safety net for every citizen?


In reality, the definition of “big government” is sharply divided based upon ones’ political leanings and there is no real unified definition of the term—each ideology has its own definition of the term. Due to this disparity, people often make mistakes about the consequences of big government and the two parties end up talking past each other during debate on the size of government.


The Right Wing Definition of Big Government

Big government according to the current mainstream GOP:

  • Social Programs – The GOP considers a vast majority of the social programs administered by the federal government to be “big” government—the list of these programs is massive and ranges from SNAP (food stamps) and healthcare subsidies to student loan assistance and unemployment benefits.
  • Corporate Regulations – While some GOP members recognize the need for regulation (ex. McCain and campaign finance regulations) many members of the GOP support deregulation and the shifting of regulatory authority to the companies themselves (self-regulation and trade association regulation)—this deregulatory push extends throughout environmental, worker protection, and financial services regulations.
  • Federal anti-discrimination laws – The GOP regularly decries anti-discrimination and voting rights protections as “big” government overreaches into state matters. We have seen this in numerous fights over the years, including the recent ones over federal protections for gay people as an oppressed class and voting-rights.


Not “big” government according to the current mainstream GOP:

  • Corporate subsidies – The modern GOP has made every effort to protect and expand the subsidies given to large corporations, including immensely-profitable petrochemical and agricultural companies.
  • Anti-gay legislation – The GOP has made numerous attempts on both the federal and state levels to discriminate against gay Americans. This discrimination has taken many forms, from the common marriage-equality bans to the attempts by the GOP in Virginia to sustain their illegal anti-sodomy laws (anti-sodomy laws were made illegal by Lawrence v. Texas).
  • Anti-Abortion legislation –For the most part, the GOP does not see the government getting between women and their doctors as big government overreaches into personal matters. Since Roe v. Wade established abortion as a right, the GOP has made it party orthodoxy to oppose abortion and pass laws restricting the right to get one.
  • Military spending – To many in the GOP, military spending is essentially exempt from the concept of “big government.” In effect, the United States’ big spending on defense programs is exempt from the “big” government label, as the GOP compartmentalizes it as spending which is necessary for national safety.

GOP focus

The definition of what constitutes “big government” overreach held by the GOP is a composite of the various factions which make up the party.

Pro-corporate Republicans focus their definition of “big government” upon programs which regulate big-business and necessitate higher taxes—they see most attempts by the federal government to reign in business (ex. the FDA and EPA) and redistribute wealth from the wealthy to the needy as intrusive “big” government, if not tyranny. Despite this dislike of social spending and taxation, these Republicans support high levels of corporate welfare (ex. oil subsidies, tax incentives, etc.) and military spending.

Libertarian Republicans see virtually every social program, federal regulatory agency and federal subsidy as an extension of big-government. These Republicans are often in agreement with the pro-corporate Republicans, but the Libertarians are distinct from the pro-corporate GOP because they see corporate subsidies and excessive military spending as “big government” overreach.

Religious-right Republicans focus upon social issues rather than economic issues when defining big government; for the most part, these Republicans see attempts by the federal government to preventing religion from infiltrating state policy (ex. anti-gay legislation, abortion bans, etc) as “big government” overreaches.

When the various right wing constituencies are synthesized into the Republican Party, they become a party which combines the regulatory and tax views of the libertarians with the corporate welfare/spending of the pro-corporate Republicans and the social policy of the religious right.


The Left Wing Definition of Big Government

Big government according to the mainstream Democrats:

  • Massive military spending – To many Democrats, the current level of military spending (where we spend almost as much as the entire rest of the world combined) is a massive case of big government.
  • Legislating sexual morality and abortion bans – Democrats tend to reject religious laws and have a history of pushing back against the attempts by many to insert religion into public policy.
  • Corporate subsidies – While many left wingers support welfare for needy individuals and fail to classify such programs as “big government,” the same is not true for most corporate welfare. There are certainly many corporatist Democrats who break this mold, but the left wing itself has a history of rejecting corporate welfare and classifying giveaways to big business as big government waste, if not evidence of corruption and kickbacks.

warren on big banks

Not “big” government according to the mainstream Democrats:

  • Social welfare programs – For the most part, Democrats and progressives support the continuation and expansion of the social safety net and social programs which assist needy people. Programs like SNAP and education funding are seen by the left to be the proper role of government rather than big government overreaches.
  • Civil rights protections – The left wing contains a large coalition of racial minority Americans and has consistently supported strong federal protections against state and private actors discriminating against at-risk classes (ex. Racial minorities and LGBT Americans).



In totality, the definitions of “big government” used by the political right and left wings are near-diametrically opposed, thus one must be careful when using the term. The right wing tends to see big government as a function of services given to the poor and protections given to the vulnerable, while the left tends to see it as a function of government restricting peoples’ rights based upon questionable rationalizations (ex. Religious bigotries) and giving money to the wealthy.

When talking to a person of the opposite ideology, it is probably better to find a more specific and descriptive term than the highly mutable term “big government.” If no concrete definition to a term can be agreed upon (particularly given the near 50/50 split of partisanship in the USA), it is very likely that any use of that term will lead to confusion and misunderstandings.

5 thoughts on “Partisan Differences in the Definition of “Big Government”

  1. Good article. I would also add that it is interesting to delve further into the language of “small government” and views such as those of Libertarians, who present their crusade against big government as a battle for “freedom”.
    In my opinion, the simplistic notion that “more government = less freedom” is not always true.
    In fact, there are many instances where it can be argued that increased government intervention actually enhances overall freedom, and where reducing the size of government is very harmful to society. Ultimately it is about finding the right balance and establishing what values and principles should guide a government in its actions.
    This article does a good job in summarising the priorities of each of the political sides when it comes to addressing this issue.


  2. It clearly shows that Libertarians are the only ones who really strive for small government while Statists or Socialists want big government. I would really appreciate if David can list one aspect of our lives where government intervention and control has ever improved the situation. Of course, i do not want rhetoric, i want historical evidence. For example free markets created the largest and richest economy ever, in human history, biggest middle class ever and fastest decline in poverty ever, in United States between 1776 and early 1900s.


    • “I would really appreciate if David can list one aspect of our lives where government intervention and control has ever improved the situation.” – excitingads

      Hello. Firstly, I would like to be clear that I agree government is capable of having negative effects, but I also feel government is capable of having positive effects and that therefore our collective aim should be to minimise the harmful effects of government but maximise the positive effects. The perspective I disagree with is when “small government” is used as a rhetorical device to imply that nearly ALL government actions are harmful and therefore used to justify cuts to programs which do have a very positive impact on society, the economy and our every day lives.

      You ask for examples of government intervention that have had a positive effect, backed by historical examples.

      As a starting point- unless you’re an anarchist, I thought most people agreed “Free markets” and capitalism itself requires government – in the form of property rights, a criminal justice system and law enforcement, copyright and limited liability laws, a stable money supply, international trade laws and so on. So the very foundation of the economic system of the United States requires government to work effectively.

      In our every day lives? Would you have us close down all publicly run and tax payer funded schools, libraries, museums, roads, fire departments, national parks, national monuments, military bases, police stations, jails and so on?

      Historical impact?

      Do you oppose government intervention to protect peoples money in banks from Great Depression style “bank runs”?

      How might World War 2 have turned out without US government foreign aid to European Allies and military intervention to fight fascism?

      What might post war USA have looked like without the GI Bill providing soldiers returning from war with a college education and affordable housing?

      Do you think the US would be better off today if they never built the interstate highway system in the 1950s? Do you think the Civil rights acts in the late 50’s and early 60’s should never have been passed?

      Do you think the US would be better today if Social Security and Medicare were never signed into law?

      What about getting rid of NASA and erasing historical achievements such as the moon landing from the year 1969 in our history books?

      Would you have opposed the Clean Air and Clean Water acts? Might you even abolish your National Park Service that takes care of major national monuments such as the Statue of Liberty?

      Would you go back in time and stop federal funding that has helped pioneer remarkable achievements in vaccination programmes that have effectively wiped about viruses that used to be common killers?

      Would you get rid of Food and Drug safety laws?

      I could go on and on, but you can see that if you somehow had a time machine and went back throughout history one by one preventing all of these forms of positive government intervention you would be quickly erasing vital parts of US identity. If you shut down virtually all publicly run services and government programs in the present day in addition to this, I struggle to see how this could do anything but make the US far poorer as a country.


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