A Pro-Government Campaign
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Making Support for Government a Populist Issue
While much of the support and energy for a pro-government coalition must come from interest groups, public officials, and political activists, we should not ignore the role that can be played by average Americans. Support for government needs to become a populist issue. Conservatives and libertarians have succeeded in hijacking populism and redefining it as a right-wing cause. They claim to speak for the common person against an intrusive government. This is one of the main appeals of the Tea Party movement.
We need to reestablish a left-wing form of populism: the kind of movement that was popular during the Franklin Roosevelt's administration and the activist era of the 1960s. This version of populism embraces government as a way of empowering average Americans. We need to more effectively make the case that the advantage of democratic government is that it enables us to band together collectively to generate enough power to address those issues that are normally beyond our control. For example, as Benjamin Barber points out, government can put us on a par with large powerful corporations and discourage them from exploiting us through faulty products, low wages, unsafe investments, dangerous workplaces, etc. “Big government – or let's call it strong democracy – is for the little guy; it’s how he and his neighbors can take on the big bullies in the private sector.”21
We need to stress the point that most of us by ourselves do not have the power to address the many problems that are afflicting our lives. Individual health-care savings accounts will not provide affordable medical for most of us, we all can't afford private schools to ensure a decent education for our children, the market will not provide retirement security, businesses will not always provide safe working conditions or livable wages, charities cannot possibly take care of all the needy, “let the buyer beware” is not going to protect us from dangerous products, and we can’t clean up the environment simply by recycling our cans and bottles. No – to achieve these goals and to create a decent and humane society, we must have an active and well-funded public sector.
A populist vision that includes a large and active government is not something that will just appeal to those on the political left. We need to remember that Americans of all political stripes already support many government programs. When over 60% of Americans say that they want the government to spend more on education and health, 69% favor more generous government aid to the poor, 77% say the government should do all it takes to protect the environment, and 83% favor raising the federal minimum wage, these are not just liberals and progressives speaking – they include many moderates and even conservatives. Remarkably, a poll by the Center for American Progress found that 40% of conservatives and libertarians support a larger federal government role in areas like improving public schools, reducing poverty, and developing new energy sources.22 So pro-government activists would be making a mistake to ignore those in the political middle or even on the right.
It is tempting for those on the left to think that all Americans who vote Republican or express contempt for government are hardhearted people who don’t care about education, the environment, the poor, etc. In fact, most of these people do care, but many have been led to believe that government is bad and a poor way to promote their concerns. What they need to see is that there is often no good substitute for government – that we simply cannot rely on the ourselves as individuals, or the invisible hand of the market, to address the many serious problems and concerns that face us as a society.
The problem, of course, is that most average Americans are unlikely to get excited by an appeal to support “government” in the abstract. So we need to connect what people are passionate about – specific values and goals – to government itself. Thus if people want to protect their family from risks – and they do – then they should be supporting a well-funded and active government that can shield them from environmental toxins, dangerous products, deadly diseases, and financial crises. In the same way, most Americans care deeply about having a fair and just society, but they need to be reminded that we can create this kind of world only by acting collectively through government. As Diana Aviv once observed, “We all seek justice, and the path to justice leads inevitably to the halls of government. That is where this great community we call America, in its wisdom or in its folly, chooses the policies and programs that bring justice nearer or keep it at bay.”23 This is true of many other things besides justice – most efforts to promote the common good lead to the halls of government.
A broad-based effort to revitalize our public sector must be rooted in broadly shared values. And it must recognize that when government is fully democratic, it can embody the best in us. Right-wing anti-statists want us to believe that government represents only the worst in us – our corruptness, incompetence, and selfishness. But as this website shows, government programs most often represent our finest and most humane qualities: our compassion for those in need, our desire to care for each other, our pursuit of a just society, our commitment to solve problems that cause human suffering. Most Americans are not simply out for themselves; they also want to make the world a better place for everyone. They just need to better recognize the inherent connection between their desire to promote the common good and the need for government. Government is often one of our best tools for transforming our world in a positive way.
Fortunately, there are some indications that average Americans are beginning to rally in support of government. Large numbers of Americans supported successful efforts to reform health care and to re-regulate an out of control financial industry. In many communities around the United States, citizens have begun to organize to fight tax cuts, prevent reductions of vital government services, and pressure government to expand its efforts to solve the many serious problems we continue to face as a society. In 2010, voters in Colorado defeated by a two-to-one margin three ballot initiatives that would have drastically cut funding for state and local services and banned the use of debt by the state government. The vote represented a victory for a widespread coalition that included grassroots groups and even parts of the business community. The Colorado Progressive Coalition pointed out that the defeat of these measures meant that:
We value equal opportunities, a strong infrastructure, safety, and efficient government. We care about the services that are available and provided to EVERYONE in our state. We understand that we are stronger when we put our tax dollars together. We sent this message out to the anti-tax and anti-government faction loud and clear. Colorado is worth it!
People are getting tired of the conservative assault on important government services – tired of school budgets being cut, firefighters being laid off, environmental problems being ignored, roads falling into disrepair, and Social Security being threatened. They are beginning to realize that government is not always some remote “them,” but that government often is “us.” So when conservatives are able to defund and hamstring government, they are limiting our ability to protect our families from harm and to improve all of our lives. More and more people are starting to recognize that the attack on government is an attack on them, and so they are fighting back. We should all join them. We need government, and right now, it needs us.
1. Robert Kuttner, “Teachable Moments: Every Week, Celebrate a Public Hero.” The American Prospect Online Edition, July 1, 2004. http://www.prospect.org/web/page.ww?section=root&name=ViewPrint&articleId=8120
2. “A Matter of Trust: Americans and Their Government 1958-2004,” Council for Excellence in Government, 2005, p. 15.
3. “A Matter of Trust,” pp. 32-33.
4. Meg Bostrum, By, or for, the People: A Meta-Analysis of Public Opinion of Government (New York: Demos, March 1, 2005), p. 34.
5. Steven Hill, 10 Steps to Repair American Democracy (Sausilito, CA: PoliPoint Press, 2006) p. 181.
6. Bostrum, p. 7.
7. Bostrum, p. 7.
8. Bostrum, p. 7.
9. This project was sponsored by Public Works: the Demos Center for the Public Sector and the Council for Excellence in Government. Research was coordinated by the FrameWorks Institute and conducted by Cultural Logic and Public Knowledge.
10. Dēmos, “A Focus on Government” October 2005, p.2.
11. Demos, “A Focus on Government” October 2005, p.2.
12. Demos, “Making It Real,” October 2005, p.2. http://www.demos.org/pubs/PB3_ThinkingProductively_2005_09_14.pdf
13. Dēmos, “Public Structures,” March 2006, p.3. http://www.demos.org/pubs/PB_6_Public_Structures_2006_04.pdf
14. See, for example, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus’ essay “The Death of Environmentalism: Global Warming Politics in a Post-Environmental World,” in which they argue that environmentalists must move beyond ineffective single-issue politics and join with labor and other groups to create a broad-based grassroots social movement. http://www.thebreakthrough.org/images/Death_of_Environmentalism.pdf
15. Barbara M. Blank, It Takes a Nation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), p. 203.
16. Dianne Stewart, “Add Another Job to Your List: Be an Advocate for Government,” SPARC Change, Winter 2004, p. 5.
17. Eric Alterman, What Liberal Media (New York: Basic Books, 2003), pp. 92-93.
18. William Greider, “The Right’s Grand Ambition: Rolling Back the 20th Century” May, 12, 2003, The Nation.
19. Garrison Keillor, Homegrown Democrat (New York: Viking Press, 2005).
20. Tom Allen, “The Government: Doing What We Can’t Do Alone,” Message to Maine, January 20, 2001.
21. Benjamin Barber, “A Civics Lesson,” The Nation, November 4, 1996, p. 21.
22. Guy Molyneux and Ruy Teixeira, with John Whaley, "Better, Not Smaller: What Americans Want from their Federal Government," July 2010. http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2010/07/what_americans_want.html
23. Diana Aviv, “We the People: Our Collective Work.” Speech at the Independent Sector Annual Conference, Chicago, November 8, 2004. p. 6.