Issue #23, Winter 2012

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 clearly my thinking at the time: The Bush era was the first 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.

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.


More from Democracy: A Journal of Ideas

Editor's Note by Michael Tomasky

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Issue #23, Winter 2012
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lambert strether:

The Ds aren't "afraid." They are owned by the same people who own the Rs, much as Starbucks and Seattle's Best are different brands with the same owner.

Want proof? The massive bait and switch operation that Obama ran in 2008 (aided and abetted by career "progressives," I might add, who at a minimum should abandon their claims to be savvy, and stop prognosticating about anything).

There is no need to conjure up explanations that involve mysterious and unverifiable collective psychological states.

The direction of the country won't change until the legacy parties , and their enablers, either adapt or are destroyed.

Dec 13, 2011, 8:25 PM

Got to agree with Lambert. Most of the Dems in power frolic in the same bed as Republicans. The Blue Dogs are exhibit A as proof.

As to the point of the article, we don't need any more Obama speeches saying government can work. The best proof would be for government to actually work! Talking shouldn't be confused with doing.

When Obama can get a single piece of legislation through Congress without it being diluted to uselessness by the right then I'll consider have a little more faith. But after watching three years of Obama, after watching OWS get squashed by THE GOVERNMENT, it seems like the only hope is from kooks with firebombs. Luckily I'm too darned old for that crap.

Dec 15, 2011, 4:13 PM
Randy Yale:

If Democrats "are owned by the same people who own the Rs," and I agree that there are many indications that it is true on some level, then what can be done to change our political culture.
I suggest that we need to begin by separating government power--elected office holders, regulators, etc.--from the power of money. This, of course, is not a new idea. But I think it has to be done at the individual candidate level. In fact, I am running for congress for this reason.

Dec 17, 2011, 5:52 PM
Mike Lieberman:

I wholeheartedly agree with Tomasky's point. I have been yearning for Obama to forcefully rebut Reagan's "government isn't the solution to our problems; government is the problem" line. We are contesting policy in a hostile ideological environment where we need to make their arguments work for our policies. This needs to be fixed, and will take dedicated and concerted action from the top down.

Dec 20, 2011, 12:49 AM

Michael, the political problem is that the party of government refuses to turn loose its claim of control over the part of the citizenry that rejects the concept of an ever-expanding and more invasive federal government. If government did less, there would be less conflict over policy. When levels of government that are more local and that involve fewer participants go astray, it is possible remedy the deficiencies and change policy. Our current federal framework cannot adequately accommodate the multitude of factions that are rarely reconciled. We should part ways now, amicably. I think that is a fair offer. If not accepted soon, you may find that the unlimited power of the federal government is successfully utilized against you... think of the 14th Amdt as the basis for Incorporation of the Second Amdt against states and localities. What if that proves to be a more permanent trend, rather than an anomaly, for the whole array of precious "progressive" goals you toil for?

Dec 20, 2011, 6:25 PM

Government should do and does things that individuals couldn't possibly do. And these is should promote. It gets into trouble when it tries to do things that by far most individuals are perfectly capable of doing for themselves.

Dec 25, 2011, 5:56 PM
David Grant:

The legislature has never ever had 'someone like me' in it ... and never will (since defining 'someone like me' is one who will not go through the rigamarole of campaigning to become a representative). THUS, the 'government' has been throughout my lifetime illegitimate.
What is needed is a reinstitution of the original Greek process of 'democratic selection'. That is, by sortition.

Dec 28, 2011, 4:49 PM

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