A Pro-Government Campaign
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Publicizing What Government Does for Us
We also need to become more aware of what government is doing for us. Many of us rarely think about what we get for our tax dollars – the kinds of services that our local, state and federal governments are providing for us every day. Remarkably, when asked if government has had a positive effect on their lives, 45% of Americans insisted that it has not.3 But it is revealing that when these same people were asked about specific government programs, a majority said that they had benefited from programs on food and drug safety, consumer protection, workplace regulations, public universities, public schools, roads and highways, parks and recreation, environmental laws, medical research, police and the courts, and social security. So when people stop thinking about government in the abstract, and are made to think of particular government programs, they are more apt to recognize their beneficial effects on their own lives.
If governments bragged about their accomplishments the way all other organizations do, it would be more difficult for people to believe that they get little for their tax dollars. In fact, there is evidence that efforts like this would help. Pollsters have found that if they first remind people of the various government programs and services provided for them, and then ask them to rate government, the results improve. “After people consider different government activities and programs, they are more likely to report that government has a positive effect on their lives.”4 Hardly surprising.
So how can we begin to make the invisible achievements of government more visible? One way for Americans to get more of this information is for government to give it to them. As Steven Hill has explained:
Government should advertise its accomplishments just like a business does, through TV and radio ads, reminding the public of the good things it accomplishes. Corporations do this; why shouldn’t government? A potential advertising theme could “Government is Good for You,” with the ads showing the many ways that government does good things for individuals and communities, from providing direct services to producing regulations that facilitate business providing direct services. Imagine ads showing the volume of mail moved every day through the U. S Postal service; the scientific breakthroughs funded by government, the transportation and communication advances fostered by government.5
Governments could also learn from non-profit organizations and charities, which send out annual letters to their donors explaining all the good works that have come from their donations. Our state and local governments should be sending out “annual reports” that inform citizens of all the good their tax dollars are doing. For example, our local government should tell us how many criminals it has arrested, how many supermarket scanners and gas pumps it has checked, how many fires it has put out, how many parks it has been maintaining, how many construction sites it has inspected, how many miles of roads it has cleaned and plowed, how many gallons of clean water it has provided, how many drunk drivers it has gotten off the roads, how many restaurants it has inspected, how many people have used the public libraries, how many children it has educated, and so on. As the old saying goes, “It ain’t bragging if you can do it” – and government is “doing it” for citizens every day.
Another step toward correcting our collective misperceptions of government would be for the news media to cover government in a more balanced and accurate way. The public relies on the media for their information about government, and as it stands today, most of that coverage is negative. This is to be expected from explicitly right-wing media outlets like Fox News who go out of their way to bash “big government” whenever they can. But even more mainstream and less ideological news sources – such as the major broadcast networks – feed their watchers and readers with a steady diet of negative stories about government. Political scandals, policy fiascos, and “wasteful programs” are considered news, government successes are not. When government programs work, we hear little about them – they only become front page news when they fail.
The news media need to take a more objective and even-handed view of government. No one is asking them to turn a blind eye toward the problems of government, but neither should they turn a blind eye toward its achievements. It should be part of the media’s civic obligation to give the American public more accurate information about the role that government is playing in their lives. Some critics of the media have suggested that one step in the right direction would be for news organizations to make an editorial decision that for every two negative stories about government, they would offer one positive one. But given the current market-driven nature of the news media, such a change seems unlikely. There are, however, some alternatives to the mainstream media that at least give government an even break – such as The Rachel Maddow Show and journals like The Nation and The American Prospect. These sources of news and commentary are often hard on particular politicians and policies, but they are usually willing to acknowledge, and even praise, the vital roles played by social welfare programs and regulatory efforts.