With multiple crises on our hands, most Americans really want government to do more to solve our problems. Thankfully, our current leadership is doing everything they can to show people that government can solve problems. Sometimes government is the only thing that can.
Still, anti-government rhetoric permeates our public debate and creates political obstacles to our taking much needed action. In our fear of being called “tax and spend liberals” we had forgotten how to talk about government without apologizing for it. We need to figure out how to articulate a positive view of government so we can undo decades of damage.
For fifty years, the anti-government movement manipulated our thinking by controlling the public debate, framing us as individuals competing in a market and driven by self-interest, instead of what we are: members of a society capable of cooperating for the good of us all.
Their intention was to limit the ability of government to tax and regulate them, but they didn’t realize that their creation would take on a life of its own. What started as a rational case for limited government metastasized into a vision of government as the enemy of freedom.
Under Trump, representatives of this powerful anti-government movement took over government for the purpose of what Steve Bannon called the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” They worked to weaken it, bankrupt it, tear it down, so that a privileged few people could pursue unfettered greed without the inconvenience of respecting even the minimum of basic human decency, exacerbating an already dangerous level of social and economic inequality.
The erosion of faith in all of our institutions, and in our fellow Americans, led us to the point of having the first presidential election in which the transfer of power was not only not peaceful, but actually turned violent and deadly.
Ronald Reagan probably didn’t see that coming, but by glorifying selfishness, dehumanizing those in need, and denigrating cooperative government action, he definitely deserves the credit for creating this monster.
Thankfully, the American people, for the most part, recognize reality when they see it. They know isolation. They know dying. They know unemployment. They know struggle. They know that they need help, and that they and others like them are not to blame for the situation they find themselves in.
As Zachary D. Carter, author of a brilliant biography of John Maynard Keynes puts it, “Markets crashed, unemployment soared, and America remembered that the economy serves society, not the other way around.”
As a society, sometimes we have to work together and take responsibility for each other. Government is the best tool we have to do that.
We now understand that we need government that works. We know that the private sector not only cannot solve every problem, it can’t even solve its own problems.
Only government can coordinate with other governments and between states. Only government can get the private sector to do what it wouldn’t do on its own. Only government can achieve dramatic and rapid increases in scale. And only government can produce the billions of dollars we need to rescue those who are drowning, provide relief to those who are suffering and rebuild our lives better than before.
People need to know what we stand for. Not just the positions, but the principles by which we act out our values, by which we make decisions and judge right from wrong. We need to articulate our philosophy of governance and how it contrasts with conservative beliefs.
We can’t be afraid to speak out about government as a force for good. We have to reframe the entire public debate, to change all the narratives from ones based on the moral glorification of self-interest to ones based on our common humanity.
With quiet grace, President Biden and his administration are doing an extraordinary job of starting us down this path. In the campaign, they reframed empathy as strength. They have been unafraid to say that the purpose of government is to help those in need and to act on it. They have defined their job as being to deliver what the American people need.
While they work to deliver on those promises, we have to work to make sure that they don’t lose the messaging battle, the way we did with the Affordable Care Act. The Biden communications team is excellent, but they need us to reinforce their message. That means we need to spend less time talking about our opponents’ outrageous behavior and more time reinforcing positive messages about what this government is doing to rebuild people’s lives and regain their trust.
We are at an extraordinary point in history. As Paul Krugman says, “The era of ‘the era of big government is over’ is over.” We have a chance to reverse the legacy of Reagan, including the domination of free-market rhetoric in our debate and the decades of increasing inequality that that rhetoric made possible. We must seize this opportunity to articulate something better, something less cruel and less isolating: something more kind, more free, more equal and more just. By taking back the public debate, we can create the political will to make that ‘something better’ our new reality.