A Pro-Government Campaign
Political strategies include publicizing government's achievements, working to "reframe" government in the public consciousness, and building a pro-government political coalition.
When Barack Obama was elected President in 2008, some had hoped that this would put an end to the government-hating politics of the Bush era. But in fact it prompted a renewed bout of anti-government rhetoric and activism. Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and other right-wing commentators ramped up their shrill attacks on government, accusing the president of being a "communist" and railing against the "fascist" policies of the Democratic administration. Many Republican leaders attributed their political losses to the failure of the party to push its smaller government agenda aggressively enough. They called for a renewed commitment to slashing taxes and cutting budgets. In addition, the Tea Party movement emerged, pushing a rabidly anti-tax and anti-government message.
So instead of the war on government winding down, it has actually intensified. This means that a pro-government campaign is needed now more than ever. We need to promote a more positive view of government and to organize a pro-government political coalition that can push politicians to support the refunding and revitalization of the public sector. In this article, I will talk about what steps we can take to aid in this effort to build support for government – from actions that we can take as individuals to suggestions about how we can begin to build a pro-government alliance among political groups in this country.
Taking Personal Responsibility
The obvious place to begin is with ourselves. There are a number of things we can do as individuals to help to revitalizing government. We can start by not inadvertently contributing to the right-wing effort to malign this institution. For example, we all tend to promote negative stereotypes of government. I recently attended a party in which an otherwise intelligent woman confidently declared that “All politicians are corrupt.” Of course this is patently absurd, but it is exactly the kind of cynical comment about government that comes naturally to most of us. As we’ve seen, most Americans have a love-hate relationship with government – distrustful and derogatory on the one hand and yet very positive about its programs on the other. However, it is the negative attitude that is closest to the surface and which tends to be voiced most often in public. When we are among friends and families, it is our knee-jerk cynicism about government that tends to come out – even among those of us who most strongly support this institution. Who can resist a good joke at the government’s expense?
But we need to stop this. We need think about how we talk about government and be aware of how we contribute to the unfair denigration of this institution. Before we make our usual complaints about taxes, we should stop and consider how our money actually contributes to a whole host of important public interest efforts – such as promoting better health and protecting the environment. And we need to make it clear that even though we may strongly disagree with the particular politicians and policies, that government itself continues to play a vital role in American society.
Another thing we can do is to confront other people about their mistaken criticisms of government. All too often, when someone is bashing government, we join in or at least acquiesce. But we should be setting our friends and relatives straight about why many criticisms of government are in fact inaccurate and wrong-headed. And we should become defenders of government in public as well. Robert Kuttner, who writes for The American Prospect, could serve as a good example for us all. He tells a story about being on the campaign trail when John Kerry was running for re-election to the Senate in 2000. Kuttner was on a panel with Kerry at a gathering of Democratic town committees. When a questioner asked Kerry about deregulation, he started his response by observing that “Nobody wants more regulations.” But while this answer went down well with most of this audience, it did not with Kuttner. After Kerry finished, Kuttner said, “Excuse me, Senator, I want more regulations” and he then went on to mention corporate excesses such as “drug-company price gouging that were crying out for more public remediation, not less."1
What is unusual about this story is not simply that a liberal like Kerry so easily slipped into knee-jerk government bashing, but that Kuttner had the courage to call him on it in public. It is not easy – or cool – to be a public defender of government, but it is an important task that we all need to take up. Fortunately, when you come to the defense of government, you will find more often than not that at least some people agree with you. Consider that after Kuttner confronted Kerry, the senator quickly backed down, explaining that he meant he was opposed to regulations in the sense of red tape. On some level, most people know that government plays a very positive role in our society. And almost 40% of Americans believe that “Government does a better job than it is given credit for.”2 So there is actually a large receptive audience out there for those who are willing to stand up and defend the importance of government.