Written by: Michael Baharaeen
As a polarized country and an even more polarized Congress refuse to come together to work on the tough issues facing our country, some veteran political observers have identified about a severe problem1: Republicans have uniformly aligned against any and every policy proposal put forth by Congressional Democrats or President Obama, ostensibly for the sake of “not compromising their principles.” In an attempt to keep the government running and not seem as intransigent as the other side, a sizeable bloc of Democrats have compromised along the way, fearing that unadulterated policy grid-lock would be even worse than making a few concessions to their colleagues across the aisle. Instead of pressing forward with the change we were promised in 2008, Democrats have been forced to temporarily manage the system on the right side of the 50-yard line, with the Republicans pushing them ever closer toward their own end zone. (To be clear, this would result in a safety for the Democrats, not a touchdown.)
The problem, as an exasperated Toby Ziegler – the president’s communications director from the fictional television series, The West Wing – mentions in Season 5, is that if they can’t form another New Deal, the beleaguered White House should at the very least “[fight] for the old one, instead of haggling with Republicans over how much to cut.2” That statement perfectly summarizes the feelings of many liberals right now, myself included. Democrats have been caught playing into the Republicans’ theme of “smaller government is better.” And, as Paul Krugman recently stated, if Democrats were simply willing to take control of the narrative, point out what Republicans mean when they decry “big government” and what their attempts to scale it back would actually produce, they could strike a reverberating chord with voters3.
Last week Mitt Romney made the mistake of accidently being honest when he described what his party should be doing to help shrink government. While on the campaign trail, he derided President Obama: “He says we need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers,” and without skipping a beat, claimed, “It’s time for us to cut back on government and help the American people.” What does this tell us? Well, it is pretty clear that the typical image Republicans try to forge in voters’ minds of “big government” as buildings full of mindless bureaucrats has been sullied, at least in the short term. People now understand what shrinking government actually entails. In fact, the citizens of Camden, New Jersey, saw these effects earlier this year when the city was forced to cut about half of its police force, resulting in a subsequent spike in crime and longer response times for emergencies4.
When voters see a causal link as clear as New Jersey’s, they begin to understand the benefits government actually provides. Kansas City voters understood this as well. In the 2010 midterm elections Missouri voted to put both Kansas City’s and St. Louis’s earnings tax up for a vote every five years. What the campaign against that petition tried to elucidate to Missourians was that the earnings tax was essentially what allowed the two cities to run their day-to-day business. Naturally, residents of those cities wanted to protect these services, and voted against the proposition. Unfortunately, the rest of the state (on which this proposition had minimal impact) was not as privy to this campaign, and voted to allow the quinquennial votes to occur. When the first referenda were held in both cities in April 2011, voters overwhelmingly rejected repealing the tax and phasing it out. But again, the point must be stressed: it took a persistent campaign to explain to voters what life would be like without the services that were funded by the earnings tax.
It worked on the local level, and it could certainly work at the national level. Gaffes from the Romney camp are becoming commonplace, and every once in a while he reveals Republicans’ true intentions, providing Democrats with an opportunity to take over the national conversation and shape it to their liking. This is the perfect time to craft a narrative of the importance of government and the good it can do to take on an ever-increasing voter malaise in the body politic. First, liberals must recapture and cultivate an image of government not as profligate busybodies sitting in cubicles at the IRS, but rather as teachers, police officers, firefighters, park maintenance crews, and the like. It is imperative that Democrats capitalize on what appears to be Mitt Romney eschewing groups of public workers who form the backbone of our society.
Once this visualization has been made, Democrats must then begin explaining to the public the good that these public servants (i.e. “government workers”) can do. Government teaches a good majority of kids in this country…for free. Government stocks the shelves at your public library and keeps your parks clean. It helps maintain and perform upkeep on roads and bridges. Government is a 3-digit phone call away if you have been injured or robbed, or if your house is on fire. Government provides health care to a vast number of Americans, including senior citizens (Medicare), veterans (the VA), children (SCHIP), the poor (Medicaid), and now other parts of the middle and working classes (the Affordable Care Act). It created and maintains a social safety program for senior citizens to prevent them from falling into poverty once they retire and no longer have a steady income. Government provides unemployment benefits as temporary relief to those unable to find work, and also helps students from struggling families continue on to higher education through Pell grants. Government keeps your air and water clean, and ensures the safety of the food you eat. Government ensures that you are paid a fair wage (and Democrats in government are always seeking to make it a more livable wage). Government protects your property. Government prevents national and multinational corporations from merging into giant, anti-competitive monopolies, which would squelch any chance for small businesses to survive, let alone thrive. Most recently, government set up a new bureau whose sole purpose is to protect consumers from unfair and predatory actions by producers and lenders.
Of course, government has its problems; it always has, it always will. Inefficiencies are inherent to an institution which takes into account the voices of so many. But that is why it is imperative that we continually try to improve it, not weaken it. Ziegler later summarizes, “No matter what its failures in the past – and in times to come, for that matter – government can be a place where people come together and where no one gets left behind…an instrument of good.5” It may take time, but if we choose to give this view a chance, we can all ultimately be better off.