A Giant of the Conservative Movement Discusses His Political Career

Grover Norquist talks with POLIS students prior to his talk at the Sanford School.
Anti-tax activist Grover Norquist talks with POLIS students prior to his talk at the Sanford School.

One of the most influential figures in the American conservative movement over the last 40 years, Grover Norquist spoke Feb. 7 at Duke about conservatism, issue advocacy, and his longstanding role in politics.

In conversation with Fritz Mayer, director of POLIS: Duke’s Center for Political Leadership, Innovation and Service, Norquist traced his fascination with politics to an interest in foreign policy during the Cold War.

He said his interest in domestic policy grew as he saw the effect of the United States government on Americans and the rest of the world and the importance of taxes. He concluded that reducing the size and scope of taxes “limits the damage the government can do and the control it can exercise over individuals.”

A graduate of Harvard University, Norquist moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked with the Republican Party and Chamber of Congress before the Reagan Administration asked him to head up the newly created Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), a position he continues to hold today.

One of Norquist’s signature projects at ATR is the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, a written commitment signed by legislators and candidates to oppose net tax increases. Since 1986, no one has broken the pledge at the federal level. Norquist said the pledge has become so influential that as long as Republicans have control of the House, Senate, or presidency, the federal government will be unable to increase taxes.

"It has been a powerful tool in branding the modern Republican Party as the party that won't raise your taxes,” Norquist said.

He also created the Wednesday Meeting in 1993. This coalition of 150 elected officials and leaders in the center-right movement continues to meet weekly at the Americans for Tax Reform headquarters, and other Wednesday Meetings occur in cities around the country.

While some tax cuts are criticized as heightening wealth inequality in America, Norquist sees the left’s focus on economic equality as diverting attention from the real problem: poverty. “The left talks about inequality because they’re embarrassed by the failure of the state to fix poverty,” Norquist said.

From his perspective, tax increases only make the rich poorer without helping the poor.

Norquist emphasized the success of free market, independent contractors like Uber and Airbnb in lieu of government regulation, laws, and licensing.

Pointing to our government’s religious liberty, he argued Americans should also have economic liberty, free from as many taxes and regulation as possible. He asserted the government should “respect the freedom of individuals to run their lives as they see fit.”

Instead of government regulation, Norquist posits torts as a way to check inefficiencies and negative externalities in the market.

This goal of reducing the scope of the federal government also translates to areas of criminal justice and the military. Norquist criticized the more than 6,000 federal-level regulations that are punishable by law without proof of criminal intent. He also advocated for cuts in military spending.

In addressing government deficits, Norquist said, “The deficit is not the problem, spending is." Rather than cutting the federal budget, “you reform the federal government to cost less.” Norquist encouraged the use of block grants to state and local governments, allocating federal funds more efficiently and strategically.

“Not everyone has the same preferences,” Norquist said, “but the government treats people exactly the same.”

He also fielded questions from the audience, covering issues such as universal basic income, comprehensive immigration reform, Medicare for all, and the Second Amendment.

The event was cosponsored by the Sanford School of Public Policy and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy.