The Greatest Story Never Told
Our political problem, in a nutshell: The party of government is afraid to defend government. Nothing will really change until that changes.
Thinking about the Republican presidential primary process now about to unfold inevitably carries me back to four years ago. How different it all felt! Whether one supported Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, or the pre-scandal John Edwards, one could feel confident and enthusiastic. George W. Bush was functionally finished, and more than that, conservatism itself seemed on life support in a way it had never been since the rise of the modern conservative movement. I remember cleaarly my thinking at the time: The Bush era was the experience Americans had had with a conservative government that failed them. There’d been only one previous modern conservative administration, Ronald Reagan’s, and it was, to the average American, a relative success. But Bush had made things worse by nearly every measure, and this was before the economic meltdown. Maybe Americans would now be open to a different approach.
I don’t need to rehearse the history between then and now. We all know it, and most of it is too depressing anyway. A few days before writing these words, I happened to be in Chicago, strolling through Grant Park, thinking back to Barack Obama’s big Election Night victory rally there in 2008, when so many things seemed possible. And it is true that much has been accomplished. But the overwhelming feeling has to do with what has not been accomplished, and what we now know has almost no chance of being accomplished, even if Barack Obama wins re-election (and remembering that there’s a decent chance the Republicans might take control of the Senate). The tax code won’t be made more progressive. Inequality will continue to worsen. Nothing close to the needed amount of money will be invested in infrastructure or innovation. Climate change will not be addressed. There will be no major reforms of the political system. And so on. On top of that, if recent history is a guide, the Republicans (assuming they retain control of at least one house of Congress and thus have subpoena power) in all likelihood will gin up some phony scandal and bay for impeachment, or find other ways to keep throwing sand in Washington’s gears.
What a different perspective events have imposed on us: Four years ago, we really could be hopeful about change. In 2012, the election will simply be about trying to tread water and making sure we don’t drown. We can bemoan this (and I do). But we can also study it, think about it, try to draw lessons from it. The obvious lesson is that one election can’t change the country in a more progressive direction. Well then; what can?
It is undeniably the case that all of our ideological battles in this country eventually come down to government. Its size and scope and legitimacy—that is to say, the questions of political philosophy—and then, even if one acknowledges some degree of legitimacy for it, the practical question of whether it can do anything right. Conservatives and Republicans have been, as we know, making mendacious but awfully effective arguments on both fronts for three decades. And it gets even worse: In a cruel and surreal and self-perpetuating farce, Republicans let government fail while they are in power (FEMA in New Orleans, financial regulators and the crash) by not executing the missions of the agencies in question, and then, after the failure, turning around and chortling: “See? Government can’t prevent these things!”
Oddly, no one on the liberal side really defends government much. In the progressive solar system there are groups devoted to every specific issue and cause you can name, but there is no group I’m aware of that is devoted to the simple premise of standing up in public and saying: Government does this, and it’s good. Democratic politicians don’t do it either. Obama has done it from time to time, but not on any sort of consistent basis. He did it well back in April in a speech at George Washington University, the speech more famous for his broadsides against Republican Congressman Paul Ryan. That speech, I thought at the time, laid down some themes he might build on. (Remember his defense of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid? “We’re a better country because of these commitments. I’ll go further. We would not be a great country without those commitments.”) But he didn’t.
Our current political dynamic will not change until someone puts forth a thorough, well conceived and articulated (and financed) long-term plan to defend the functions of government in principle and to show the American people that government in practice does in fact do many things well. This effort could take the form of a nonprofit organization that conducts massive—and hip and engaging and most of all non-boring—public-education campaigns to tell people that despite everything they have been led to believe, government actually gets some stuff done. It has cleaned thousands of rivers and lakes, and improved air quality everywhere. It has invested in and helped make possible thousands of projects in American cities and towns that, to the average person, look like private developments—hotels, convention centers, civic centers, parks. It has helped thousands of small businesses find markets for their goods. Its scientists and inspectors and extension agents—and yes, its regulators!—have limited or prevented public-health calamities, and they spend every day working on making the future safer. No one knows these people exist—and they should.
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