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.
The only contacts most people have with the government are unpleasant. Paying taxes. Waiting in line at the DMV or post office. Cursing and shaking one’s fist when encountering a pothole. Calling a bureaucracy when a problem arises or a loved one dies. (Interestingly, similar commercial contacts—trying to get cable TV installed, say—are no walks in the park, but these don’t color our impression of the entire private sector.) No one—not even the government itself!—attempts to initiate positive contacts. And so, government does things, and people don’t know. It never occurs to your average Joe that the river he couldn’t fish in 20 years ago but now can didn’t just miraculously clean itself. And no one in American political life is bothering to point it out to him. You and I may take for granted that the EPA did that job, but how many people really stop and think about that? They have to be told.
I know this sounds naïve. Or hopeless: Anti-government feeling is so deeply ingrained that you can never change Americans’ minds about it. I’m not sure that’s true. Information can change people’s minds. It takes time. But it’s possible. And remember, we don’t have to change everyone’s minds. Just enough to tip the scales in a divided country back in favor of a more pro-government agenda.
Every election season, liberals sit around and say to one another: Why are things the way they are? Why is the progressive candidate bragging about cutting taxes and reducing the size of the federal budget, as Obama will inevitably do? There are many answers to these questions, but the main one is this: Neither Obama nor any politician can stand before the American people and make a case for investing and spending as long as most Americans think the mechanism of that investing and spending is incompetent or evil or both (a New York Times poll from late October found that only 10 percent of respondents trusted government to do the right thing always or most of the time, the lowest figure since that question was asked starting in the mid-1970s). Until those basic perceptions are changed, the broad left is going to be seen by a majority of the public as little better than a drunkard on a street corner begging for change. Why should we give you more money if you’re just going to waste it? Many elected Democrats think the answer to that question is to cut the budget first: Once we’ve shown voters that we’re capable of tightening the belt where necessary, they’ll be more willing to let us use the government as an instrument of change. That may be part of it. But there remains the central question: Is the money going to good use? In a thousand ways, it is. But it’s a story no one is telling. Democrats are afraid to, and the universe of progressive funders and strategists, for whatever reason, hasn’t really thought to.
Some presidential elections will be rearguard actions, like this one. Others might be more like 2008, when the GOP had screwed up the country and people were willing to give the other side a chance. But it should now be manifestly clear that while the voters were rejecting conservative governance, they weren’t necessarily embracing a progressive agenda. And they won’t until the entity that is at the heart of that agenda—government—has a better reputation. The direction of the country won’t change until it does.
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