A Pro-Government Campaign
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Other Parts of a Pro-Government Coalition
There are other institutions and groups that would be natural participants in a pro-government coalition. These include non-profits, foundations, think tanks, public intellectuals, and public officials.
Non-Profits. These organizations could provide vital support in the effort to revitalize government. They include charities, hospitals, human service groups, museums, and community foundations, and they represent a significant sector in American society. Traditionally, many of these groups have been thought of as rivals to government programs – providing health care, support for the arts, disaster relief, and services for the needy that the government does not provide. However, the decline of government and cutting of government programs is having several negative effects on these organizations. First, government actually provides a substantial amount funding for many non-profit efforts. This is particularly true of many private human service organizations. For example, Catholic Charities USA, which provides emergency food and shelter to the poor, gets 65% of its budget from the government.15 So as taxes are cut and budgets slashed, there is less money to support the efforts of these private charitable groups.
Another problem is that as government programs themselves are cut, non-profits are being asked to take up the slack. Yet there is usually little chance that private donations will increase to enable them to do take on these added responsibilities.16 Workers for non-profits usually have a strong passion for their missions – whether that is to promote the arts or care for the needy. But the attack on government is also an attack on those valued missions and an attack on the clients that they care about and serve. For this reason, non-profit organizations should become major players in the effort to restore trust in government and to fight the conservative campaign to cut vital government programs.
Foundations, Think Tanks, and Public Intellectuals. These are the groups in the best position to bring a more accurate and positive vision of government to the public. They can do much to reframe the public discussion of government in a way that emphasizes the beneficial roles played by the public sector. Although right-wing foundations are more numerous than those on the left and the center, well-funded organizations like the Ford Foundation could become more influential players in the pro-government coalition, if they chose to do so. Several foundations are already supporting the work of Demos – the pro-government group whose efforts were described earlier.
In recent years, several progressive think-tanks have emerged and are vigorously promoting new and innovative government policies that will promote the public interest in many vital areas. Good examples include the New America Foundation, the Economic Policy Institute, and the Center for American Progress. Most of these organizations, however, are primarily policy-oriented and could do more to explicitly promote a positive vision of government itself.
Public intellectuals are thinkers who spend much of their time writing and speaking to the public about political issues. Some write books, some are opinion columnists, others work for think tanks, and many are academics. Foundations on the right are famous for their direct and indirect support of conservative intellectuals. Consider the career of Charles Murray. His rise from obscurity to become one of the most influential public intellectuals in this country was made possible by continuous support from right-wing funding groups. The Bradley Foundation and the Manhattan Institute have both been very generous in supporting Murray, giving him grants to write books and funding efforts to aggressively promote them. It has been estimated that conservative organizations have spent well over a million dollars promoting Murray’s anti-government writings .17
Pro-government intellectuals and their projects deserve similar encouragement and assistance from centrist and leftist foundations. If someone writes a book supporting government and its vital programs, these foundations should do exactly what the right-wing funders would do: they should buy thousands of copies and distribute them to policymakers, journalists, and libraries; they should provide generous funds for the author to go on a nation-wide promotional tour; and they should arrange for numerous glowing reviews of the book by liberal pundits and op-ed writers. Your side can’t win an intellectual battle unless you are willing to vigorously promote your ideas.
A number of public intellectuals have already come to the defense of government. Benjamin Barber of Rutgers University has written extensively about the need for active government and “strong democracy.” Paul Krugman, a columnist for The New York Times, has commented often on the right-wing attacks on government and their deleterious effects on many Americans. Reporter and author William Greider has also been writing about the radical agenda of the anti-state conservatives.18 Even Garrison Keillor has written about how Americans need to support “government as a necessary force for good.”19 But we need many more where they came from if we want to encourage a substantial change in the public’s opinion about government. This pro-government message needs to be repeated constantly in a variety of media if it is to have any effect.
Public Officials. Attacks on government are also attacks on public officials – and policymakers and administrators should see it this way. Those who work in the public sector have an obvious and strong interest in supporting it. But surprisingly, this isn’t always the case. Politicians, even those who are moderates or liberals, often actively participate in irresponsible government bashing. It is fashionable for politicians of all stripes to “run against Washington” in their campaigns – to complain how government officials are out of touch and corrupt. But they are shooting themselves in the foot. They are actually contributing to the delegitimation of government and thus undermining their own power and their ability to promote the programs they value.
Public officials should be doing exactly the opposite: explaining to the public the important role that government is playing in their lives. Most of them certainly believe this, otherwise they would not have chosen a life of public service. But many seem to shirk the role of being a vocal public advocate of government. One exception has been U.S. Representative Tom Allen (D-Maine) – who could serve as a good role model in this regard. In 2001, he quickly responded to President George W. Bush's efforts to slash taxes and cut back many government programs by penning an article called “The Government: Doing What We Can’t Do Alone” for his weekly column to his constituents in Maine. He started by mentioning some of the major achievements of the federal government, including reducing workplace discrimination, increasing access to health care by the elderly, expanding the right to vote, reducing disease, constructing a national highway system, promoting retirement security, etc. Then he observed:
What is remarkable is that we take so many of those things for granted today. When we drive on I-95, we don’t think of the massive federal investment it took to create a national highway system. Most of us can’t remember a time, before Social Security and Medicare, when half of our seniors lived (and died) in poverty. None of these achievements could have been done by individuals, or by the private sector alone. Only the federal government could afford the risk, and get it done for the benefit of America. …It is our civic duty to remind ourselves and our neighbors that so much of what makes our nation great has come from our collective action through government. As Lincoln wrote, “The legitimate object of government is to do for the people what needs to be done, but which they cannot, by individual effort, do at all, or do well, for themselves. …That is why it is disturbing to hear some politicians attempt to drive a wedge between all of us and our government. They portray the government not as an institution “we” constitute, but as a disconnected “they” designed to intrude on “us.” … The more politicians make government an “us versus them” proposition, the more a malevolent and intrusive government becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more we make the federal government, warts and all, “our” investment in our common future, the brighter the future will be for the next generations of Americans.20
When was the last time you heard a politician speak so positively and eloquently about the achievements of our democratic government? Probably not often. This has to change.