A Pro-Government Campaign
Political strategies include publicizing government's achievements, working to "reframe" government in the public consciousness, and building a pro-government political coalition.
When Barack Obama was elected President in 2008, some had hoped that this would put an end to the government-hating politics of the Bush era. But in fact it prompted a renewed bout of anti-government rhetoric and activism. Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and other right-wing commentators ramped up their shrill attacks on government, accusing the president of being a "communist" and railing against the "fascist" policies of the Democratic administration. Many Republican leaders attributed their political losses to the failure of the party to push its smaller government agenda aggressively enough. They called for a renewed commitment to slashing taxes and cutting budgets. In addition, the Tea Party movement emerged, pushing a rabidly anti-tax and anti-government message.
So instead of the war on government winding down, it has actually intensified. This means that a pro-government campaign is needed now more than ever. We need to promote a more positive view of government and to organize a pro-government political coalition that can push politicians to support the refunding and revitalization of the public sector. In this article, I will talk about what steps we can take to aid in this effort to build support for government – from actions that we can take as individuals to suggestions about how we can begin to build a pro-government alliance among political groups in this country.
Taking Personal Responsibility
The obvious place to begin is with ourselves. There are a number of things we can do as individuals to help to revitalizing government. We can start by not inadvertently contributing to the right-wing effort to malign this institution. For example, we all tend to promote negative stereotypes of government. I recently attended a party in which an otherwise intelligent woman confidently declared that “All politicians are corrupt.” Of course this is patently absurd, but it is exactly the kind of cynical comment about government that comes naturally to most of us. As we’ve seen, most Americans have a love-hate relationship with government – distrustful and derogatory on the one hand and yet very positive about its programs on the other. However, it is the negative attitude that is closest to the surface and which tends to be voiced most often in public. When we are among friends and families, it is our knee-jerk cynicism about government that tends to come out – even among those of us who most strongly support this institution. Who can resist a good joke at the government’s expense?
But we need to stop this. We need think about how we talk about government and be aware of how we contribute to the unfair denigration of this institution. Before we make our usual complaints about taxes, we should stop and consider how our money actually contributes to a whole host of important public interest efforts – such as promoting better health and protecting the environment. And we need to make it clear that even though we may strongly disagree with the particular politicians and policies, that government itself continues to play a vital role in American society.
Another thing we can do is to confront other people about their mistaken criticisms of government. All too often, when someone is bashing government, we join in or at least acquiesce. But we should be setting our friends and relatives straight about why many criticisms of government are in fact inaccurate and wrong-headed. And we should become defenders of government in public as well. Robert Kuttner, who writes for The American Prospect, could serve as a good example for us all. He tells a story about being on the campaign trail when John Kerry was running for re-election to the Senate in 2000. Kuttner was on a panel with Kerry at a gathering of Democratic town committees. When a questioner asked Kerry about deregulation, he started his response by observing that “Nobody wants more regulations.” But while this answer went down well with most of this audience, it did not with Kuttner. After Kerry finished, Kuttner said, “Excuse me, Senator, I want more regulations” and he then went on to mention corporate excesses such as “drug-company price gouging that were crying out for more public remediation, not less."1
What is unusual about this story is not simply that a liberal like Kerry so easily slipped into knee-jerk government bashing, but that Kuttner had the courage to call him on it in public. It is not easy – or cool – to be a public defender of government, but it is an important task that we all need to take up. Fortunately, when you come to the defense of government, you will find more often than not that at least some people agree with you. Consider that after Kuttner confronted Kerry, the senator quickly backed down, explaining that he meant he was opposed to regulations in the sense of red tape. On some level, most people know that government plays a very positive role in our society. And almost 40% of Americans believe that “Government does a better job than it is given credit for.”2 So there is actually a large receptive audience out there for those who are willing to stand up and defend the importance of government.
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.
The Need to Fight over How Government is Framed
Providing better information about government is a step in the right direction – but it is not nearly enough to turn around the negative views that many people have of this institution. It is tempting to think that if more people only knew what government was doing for them, they would cease to view it in such a negative light. But as Michael Lipsky, a scholar who has been studying the way the public views government, has observed: “Unfortunately, it is not that simple. If it were, supporters of key government programs and services long ago would have reminded people of the good things government does, and the anti-government initiatives of recent years would have been turned aside.”6
According to Lipsky, the problem is that this approach leaves untouched the basic images or “frames” that people have about government. Frames determine how we process information and “the very meaning of new information depends upon the frame through which the information is processed.”7 This means that people who start out with a negative view of government may easily downplay or simply ignore information that contradicts that view. So merely providing more accurate information about government may do little to overturn these deep-rooted negative frames.
The situation here is similar to that of racial prejudice. We now know that if people have a strong view of racial minorities as “inferior,” exposing them to information about the actual abilities and achievements of minorities does little to change that prejudiced view. They simply ignore the countervailing information that threatens their cherished beliefs, or they explain away the achievements of individual minorities as exceptions to the rule. So it is with government. If people harbor a prejudiced view of government, merely exposing them to counter-information may not win them over.
What is needed, then, is an approach that not only presents counter-information but also promotes counter-frames about government. We need to provide different and more positive images through which people can perceive government. This is the key to undermining the negative and inaccurate images of government being promoted by anti-government conservatives. As Lipsky explains it:
Dominant frames that people draw upon are stable but they are not impervious to challenge or change. …In principle, every communication contributes to reinforcing or dissolving one or another frame. People embrace many frames at once, so there are opportunities to reinforce some frames and degrade others. Just as the right wing attack on government as inherently wasteful and inferior to market-based institutions has contributed to public skepticism about the potential of government, it may be possible to enhance other frames which hold government in a more balanced light. If communications were shaped to reinforce a frame in which government plays a constructive social role, and ceased reinforcing frames in which government is consigned a negative role, supporters of a positive role for government, acting in concert, could help shape political discourse in positive ways.8
Promoting different frames or images of government to replace the negative images being offered by anti-government activists is not as difficult or daunting a task at it may seem at first glance. It is not as if negative images are all that exist and we have to try to replace those images with entirely new ones. As Lipsky suggests, there are already many positive frames about government out there among the public. Most people have both positive and negative frames about government and the task at hand is to reinforce the former and thus undermine the latter.
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.
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.
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.
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.