A Pro-Government Campaign

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Building a Pro-Government Coalition

The battle over government is not simply an intellectual debate that can be won with more accurate information and more positive frames about government. It is power struggle – a struggle that anti-government forces have been winning for the last several decades. Reviving government means more than revising our ideas about it, it means seizing political power back from the political forces that are trying to tear it down. It means refunding and reinvigorating the essential government programs that have been undermined and cut back by conservative policymakers. But how is this going to be done and who is going to do it?

This is not the place to discuss a grand strategy for how Americans can take control of their local, state, and federal governments away from radical right-wing anti-statists. But what can be said is that any effort to recapture government from these conservatives must be grounded in a more positive view of the public sector. Part of what can bring together an anti-right political coalition is an explicit appreciation of the vital role that government plays in society. In this respect, we can learn a lot from success of the political right. Much of what has held the conservative coalition together has been an ideological opposition to government. In the same way, a commitment to a strong and active government should be part of the broader political vision that will unify and inspire a center-left coalition.

There is already a wide variety of interest groups that could form a coalition around such a positive vision of government. Environmentalists, labor, minorities, teachers, consumer advocates, and the elderly are all natural supporters of a more active and well-funded government. They rely heavily on government to support programs that serve their interests and the public interest as well. However, currently most of these groups are narrowly focused on promoting particular issues – whether those are more affordable health care, workers’ rights, retirement security, or improving education – and put little energy into the broader political task of promoting stronger government. This is understandable, because most of these groups must carefully shepherd their very limited political resources – but it is a serious strategic mistake. They need to see the larger picture: that building a broader base of public support for government will eventually help in their individual policy areas as well. If, for example, we can build up a more adequate and reliable tax base, this will ensure the public resources necessary to fund the programs dear to the heart of these organizations. Conservatives realized long ago that if they can delegitimize government in general, this will aid them tremendously in their efforts to cut specific government programs. In the same way, an effort to relegitimize government will generally help to promote many specific government programs. Some groups have begun to come around to this realization and coalitions are already developing to collectively fight against attacks on government, especially efforts to keep cutting taxes. But much more work has to be done to bring together all these various interest groups to promote a broad, pro-government political vision.

However, it is important to think beyond interest groups and consider the role that social movements could play in promoting a more healthy and active government. It is hardly a coincidence that broad-based social movements played key roles in every era in our history that saw a major expansion of the mission and reach of government in the United States. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Progressive movement was responsible for the first major government interventions in the market to curb corporate abuses. Working with the labor movement, Progressives helped push through legislation to break up corporate trusts and monopolies, to regulate the purity of food products, restrict child labor, and institute industrial accident insurance. The next big expansion in the role of government took place in the 1930s. The severe depression and the rising power of the labor movement forced policymakers to pass many path-breaking social welfare programs, including Social Security, unemployment insurance, and the first forms of welfare assistance. Protection for workers also increased dramatically when government capitulated to labor demands for the right to unionize and for the eight-hour day. Social movements also played key roles in the next great expansion of the responsibilities of government in the 1960s. The civil rights movement forced the passage of anti-discrimination laws, voting rights legislation, and affirmative action policies. The Women’s Movement pushed through a number of measures that decreased discrimination against women – especially in the private sector. The consumer movement, led by Ralph Nader, encouraged the government to move into a number of new areas, including stricter product safety requirements, truth in lending, automobile lemon laws, and so on. And of course the environmental movement was responsible for creating an entirely new and important mission for government: protection of the human and natural environments.

Remnants of these movements are around today, but primarily in a much weaker form – as interest groups. Some labor and environmental groups seem primarily oriented toward raising money so that they build up their staffs in Washington, D.C. and lobby for particular pieces of legislation. In contrast, social movements usually emphasize grass-roots organizing and try to mobilizing large numbers of the public into their cause. They rely on “people power” rather than “money power.” Movement strategies are also often different from interest groups, emphasizing a whole variety of direct action political tactics – strikes, boycotts, demonstrations, non-violent resistance, etc. – to put pressure on lawmakers. More importantly, social movements usually have a broader political vision, seeking to make society and the political system more just and more democratic. They often want to redistribute power from the private sector – which is producing the pollution, the workplace discrimination, the low wages, and the dangerous products – to the public sector, where we are better able to protect the interests of average Americans. So this broader political vision includes a very positive role for government – one that recognizes that most social and economic problems can only be solved through the actions of an energetic public sector.

For some time now, there have been discussions among those in environmental, labor, and civil rights groups about the need to reconstitute themselves as social movements. As individual interest groups, they have had few major legislative victories in the last several decades. One idea is to form a large “progressive” movement that would serve as an umbrella for workers, minorities, environmentalists, women, the poor, etc.14 If such a united progressive movement were to emerge, this would be good news for those who also want to revitalize government in the United States. It would serve as a major political platform to pursue pro-government ideas and agendas.

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