Introduction: Why We Need to Stand Up for Government

We need to better understand the indispensable roles that government plays in our society, and we need to come to the defense of this unfairly maligned institution.

Why do we need to stand up for government?  Because for decades, this valuable institution has been unfairly attacked and maligned by right-wing forces in this country.  To make matters worse, parts of the mainstream media have eagerly joined in this government bashing.  Hardly a day goes by on Fox News without one their conservative commentators gleefully lambasting  "wasteful" social programs, "ridiculous" regulations, and the "socialist" politicians who support those "stupid" things.

Until now, those who have been attacking government have been doing a much better job than the few who have been trying to defend it.  For example, Republicans have been waging their anti-government campaign on two fronts.  First has been the attack on specific government programs, from welfare and Medicaid to environmental protection and business regulation.   Second, and perhaps more important, has been the effort to delegitimize government itself – to convince Americans that government is a bad thing that should be limited whenever possible.

Unfortunately, many centrist and liberal politicians have been fighting back on only one front.  They tried, during the Bush administration, to defend particular public sector programs from attack, including Social Security and environmental protection.  But until recently, they have not been aggressively defending the idea that government itself is valuable and beneficial.   They have not been making the positive case for a healthier and more active public sector.

Actually, it was worse than that.  Beginning in the 1980s, some Democrats beat a retreat away from the notion that government is good. They routinely reinforced anti-government stereotypes by focusing on its negative aspects, such as complaining about government waste.  Many also supported damaging tax cuts and ill-considered deregulation efforts. And some Democratic candidates even joined Republicans in running against Washington and “big government” in their election campaigns. Consider the words uttered by Bill Clinton in his 1996 State of The Union Address: “We know big government does not have all the answers. We know there’s not a program for every problem. … The era of big government is over.” These kinds of statements inadvertently added legitimacy to the right-wing crusade against government. One conservative journal, the Weekly Standard, was so excited about Clinton’s statement that they declared on their front cover “We’ve Won!”

Clearly many centrist and liberal lawmakers understood the valuable and indispensable role that government plays in our society, but many seemed to believe that if they too jumped on the anti-government band-wagon, this would take the issue away from the conservatives. But this strategy utterly failed. It only added fuel to the anti-government fire that Republicans had been stoking for years. Far from abandoning this issue, the right only pressed harder in their efforts to delegitimize government and reduce liberal programs.

It is important to see that this Democratic retreat represented an enormous change from the more positive attitude toward government – even big government – that was common in the earlier parts of the twentieth century. Then, many politicians and members of the public embraced big government as the only thing that could counter-balance the power of big business, prevail over the big foreign threats of fascism and communism, and solve big societal problems like economic depressions, racism, and environmental pollution.

Fortunately, the election of Barack Obama seemed to signal an end to the liberal retreat from government.  He has portrayed himself as a champion of government and has pledged to reinvigorate the public sector.  He understands that we still face big problems as a society – problems that only big government can solve.  These include our financial crisis, global warming, persistent poverty, an ongoing healthcare crisis, an unsafe food supply system, vastly unequal educational opportunities, a deteriorating infrastructure, and a looming pension crisis.  And the American public seems to increasingly appreciate the vital role that government programs can play in confronting these difficulties.

But despite these hopeful signs, it is clear that the battle over government is not over.  While the Republicans are presently in retreat on the national level, they still control many state and local governments and continue to pursue an agenda of cutting taxes and slashing government services.  And even in Congress, many conservatives continue to espouse the gospel of small government and they have opposed  the President’s effort to revive the economy, improve education, promote renewable energy, etc.

So there is still a need to make vigorous and reasoned case for government.  It is crucial to continue to make the argument, as this website does, that government has a vital and indispensable role to play in improving the lives of all Americans – that government is good.  

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