A Pro-Government Campaign
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Positive Images of Government
So what are some of these more positive frames or images of government? This is an important question that is being explored by a non-profit research group called Demos – the organization for which Michael Lipsky works. Demos is one of the few organizations that is studying the public’s views of government with an eye toward reviving public confidence in this institution. One of their research projects is entitled “How to Talk about Government”9 and its purpose has been to “find a new framework for talking about government that helps to dispel negative stereotypes and open the public to a reconsideration of the central role of an effective and supported public sector in achieving public purposes.”10
This project has utilized surveys, interviews, and focus groups to explore the public’s views of government. It has found, not too surprisingly, that the initial images that most people have of government are usually negative: wasteful bureaucracies, out-of-touch politicians, Big Brother, the Taxman, etc. But once people in these interviews and focus groups began to discuss more deeply the role that government plays in our society, more positive views soon emerged, and “there were indications that participants were beginning to adopt ways of viewing government that could lead to more public support and engagement.”11 In particular, when researchers introduced certain phrases, ideas, and images about government, these tended to trigger more affirmative and supportive views of this institution. Some of these alternative “frames” for government include:
- Government as Watchdog or Protector. Many people readily see government as playing a “protector” role, particularly as a provider of public safety. It is government that ensures that our streets our safe and that someone comes to rescue us and our house in case of fire. And many also acknowledge that government serves as a watchdog that protects us from abuse and harm from powerful private interests. For example, the public sees a very positive role for government in regulating business in order to protect us from unsafe products, environmental poisons, dangerous workplace conditions, etc.
- Government as Consensus Builder. Researchers found that Americans tend to initially see government as a bunch of bickering politicians who emphasize their partisan differences. But as study participants were asked to consider such things as how speed limits are set, how the postal service operates, and how schools are run, they began to appreciate more the consensus-building function that government provides. Democratic government is the way we come together collectively to decide what it is in our common good. Focusing only on our political divisions obscures the fact that there is often a great deal of agreement, especially on the local level, about what things are in the public interest – things such as clean streets, good schools, a safe water supply, a prosperous downtown, and so on. Government is our primary institution for searching for what is in our common interests. In this way, our democratic governmental bodies help to tie us together as a community and enable us to build a common vision of the future.
- Government as a Collective Public Conscience. Interview subjects were quick to recognize that government has a unique mission in society – one not played by any other organization – that of public conscience. They recognized “that government has a constraining, conscience-like function that is missing in the realm of business. In this respect, government was cast as the collective moral conscience of the country – a role and characteristic that would be absent if the country were run by business alone.”12
- Government as a Provider of Public Structures. Another positive image that emerged from these conversations was of government as a provider of essential “public structures.” These structures – courts, schools, highways, regulatory systems, etc. – contribute directly to the prosperity, stability, and security we enjoy in the United States. People readily understand and appreciate the notion that “what has made America so successful is the effectiveness of our public structures” and that while “developing countries have many smart, hard-working individuals, they don’t have the public structures that are essential for overall prosperity.”13
Some Other Constructive Images of Government
Beyond the work of Demos, it is certainly possible to identify additional positive images of government. Here, for example, are several more affirmative images that were discussed in other articles on this website.
- Government as a Practical Problem-Solver. While the right insists that government is the problem, it is in fact one of the main problem-solvers in our society. When faced with economic meltdowns, deadly diseases, growing crime, dirty air, etc., it is government that we turn to remedy those problems. And as we’ve seen in several of the pieces on this website, it has usually come through. Government is often the only institution in a position to fix or at least mitigate many of the serious problems we face as a society. Government is the public Mr. Fix-It.
- Government as Righter of Wrongs. Life is often unfair. Innocent people often fall victim to thieves, scam artists, false advertisers, etc. People and organizations with large amounts of private power can often treat us unjustly – by discriminating against us or by violating our basic freedoms and human rights. Government can be seen as often the only method that we have to collectively right these wrongs and create a more just world. It is the main institution we rely on to punish the guilty, protect the innocent, and ensure that people get what they deserve in life.
- Government as a Moral Instrument. Government is also a unique and powerful instrument for moral action – for doing good in the world. We often rely heavily on the public sector to feed the hungry, care for the sick, and comfort the victims of tragedies. Many Americans feel a moral obligation to be their “brother’s keeper,” and government is often one of the most common ways that we care for each other in this way.
Again, it is crucial to note that these kinds of positive images are not alien to most Americans. But they are currently buried beneath the surface and obscured by the constant drumbeat of anti-government criticism offered by the political right. These more positive views need to be unearthed and nurtured in order to help people reconnect with how government works to improve their lives and promote the common good. On its website, Demos has some practical suggestions for how ordinary citizens can promote these more positive visions of government. They have developed a "How to Talk About Government Toolkit" that contains sample op-ed pieces and speeches that illustrate how people can fashion messages about government that better convey how it enables us to work together to solve problems and improve the quality of our lives.
But clearly we need more than just random individuals standing up for government. We need a pro-government movement to spread the word about why government is good – a coalition of groups that will act to counter the negative views of government being promulgated by anti-state activists. Let us consider just what this kind of pro-government coalition could look like.