Randomly stop any individual at work, on the street, or anywhere else, and ask his or her opinion of the government.
You’re bound to receive responses like:
“Government is too big.”
“The government screws up everything.”
“There’s too much government intervention.”
“Politicians don’t do anything; they just care about getting elected.”
“We don’t need government; we can govern ourselves.”
We know these people.
They’re our family members, friends, and colleagues.
In his first inaugural address in 1981, former president Ronald Reagan uttered four words that have become the republican party mission statement: “Government is the problem.”
Since then, there has been a concerted, well-funded campaign to delegitimize and underestimate anything the government is or should be responsible for.
The reason for that is, of course, because the less faith we hold in our democratic institutions, the less engaged we are in them, leaving corporate lobbyists to write the legislation politicians willing to shill for them promote.
But this isn’t said out loud.
Instead, we’re fed shibboleths like, “cutting taxes,” “government spending,” states’ rights,” and “freedom from big government”.
Yet ask those same rugged Daniel Boones what they expect government to do in the wake of a natural disaster, such as those we are seeing more of as climate change intensifies. Government is fine when we need FEMA to come in after a tornado or hurricane. It’s the least Washington can do when it grants states disaster relief funds.
Ask the wealthy business owner who complains about how “intrusive” government is how he or she intends to transport products without having to rely on public roads, bridges, tunnels, and rail lines we pay for in our taxes to the “unnecessary” government.
Ask the nation’s largest and most profitable corporations why they need Congress to gift them billions in taxpayer-funded corporate welfare.
Ask the parents who bemoaned the fact that their children had to try to complete schoolwork remotely last year because the pandemic shut down their schools. They needed those publicly funded bus drivers, custodians, teachers, and cafeteria workers then, didn’t they?
While the republicans’ and libertarians’ 40-year crusade to destroy faith in government may seem like innocent disillusioned palaver, it actually has very serious and destructive consequences, the least of which is playing into foreign authoritarian regimes’ desires to see democracy fail.
A recent Real Clear Politics poll shows President Joe Biden’s average approval rating at 42.3 percent.
That puts his disapprovals at 52.2.
This is in spite of the “American Rescue Package” Biden signed into law in March, projected to increase the poorest 20% of Americans’ incomes 20%.
This is in spite of Biden finally ending the 20-year war in Afghanistan.
This is in spite of 5.6 million jobs created and an historic drop in unemployment.
This is in spite of the passage of the “Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act,” “the once-in-a-generation investment,” President Biden proclaimed at its signing, “to create millions of jobs, modernize our infrastructure, our roads, our bridges, our broadband, a range of things turning the climate crisis into an opportunity, and put us on a path to win the economic competition of the 21st century that we face with China and other large countries in the rest of the world.”
The fact that most Americans don’t know much about this is partly the fault of our for-profit corporate media pursuing its indefatigable lust for ratings.
It’s also the fault of terrible messaging coming out of the Democratic party.
A more insidious cause falls squarely with a political strategy former president Ronald Reagan’s budget director David Stockman coined “starving the beast.”
The goal is to eliminate government spending (the “beast”) by defunding vital government agencies so they collapse under their own weight. Republican lawmakers can then return to their constituents and report that, just as predicted, those agencies were a waste of their money.
A perfect example of this is the beating the beloved postal service has been taking.
In 2006, the Republican-led Congress passed the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (PAEA), which required the postal service to calculate all its anticipated pension costs for 75 years and set aside five billion dollars per year to cover future employees.
That’s five billion dollars each year for employees who haven’t even been born yet.
Does anyone think that isn’t going to force cut backs that ultimately affect efficiency?
It has, which is the goal.
It’s no coincidence this legislation former republican president George W. Bush signed after passing through a majority republican Congress came after the postal service announced it was planning on converting its entire fleet to electric vehicles.
Donald Trump appointed several members to the Postal Service Board of Governors and the current USPS Postmaster General, Louis DeJoy, a former republican fundraiser and deputy Republican National Committee (RNC) finance chair, who has mapped a plan to “permanently” slow down some first-class deliveries to “slash spending,” a move some say will disproportionately effect small businesses, middle- and low-income Americans, and senior citizens.
DeJoy’s “10-year reform plan” is expected to also cut post office hours and increase prices for customers, a move former Postmaster General Ronald Stroman asserted is “strategically-ill conceived, creates dangerous risks that are not justified by the relatively low financial return, and doesn’t meet our responsibility as an essential part of America’s critical infrastructure.”
Most people don’t know this, though.
They just know their mail is getting slower, blame the government, and make private delivery companies like FedEx, UPS–and, of course, Amazon–even richer.
Ronald Reagan double-taxed Social Security, straining FDR’s sacrosanct Social Security trust fund; stopped enforcing the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, which consolidated corporations from hundreds down to a handful; and stopped enforcing the Fairness Doctrine, blurring the lines between objective media and political and commercial interests.
One of Reagan’s first and most lasting body blows to democracy was when he threatened to fire 13,000 air traffic controllers who participated in the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) strike for raises, shorter workweeks, and better working conditions, beginning an all-out–and largely successful–assault on labor unions, which until the 1990s were the primary funding source for the Democratic party.
Under the guise of “free trade,” this assault on unions left a financial void the Democratic National Committee (DNC) needed to fill after the defeat of Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush (Reagan’s “third term”), ushering in the corporate-friendly, significantly less progressive “third way” Democrat, unashamed to accept corporate cash, thanks to several significant Supreme Court decisions that assert “money is free speech” and “corporations are people.”
Sustained assaults on democratic institutions left the Democratic party of Franklin Roosevelt’s progressive New Deal no choice but to embrace the same filthy lucre as the republicans.
Princeton University researchers Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page argue in their 2014 study “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average
Citizens” that the rich and politically well-connected are the ones pulling the strings, not the average American voter.
“The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy,” they write, “while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”
No wonder people feel like government is useless.
The Constitution‘s Preamble clearly defines government’s role as that which “establishes justice, insures domestic tranquility, provides for the common defense, promotes the general welfare, and secures the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”
The public sector may be messy at times, but its goal is not to make a buck.
Robust public infrastructure and social safety nets were established to fulfill the Preamble’s stated purpose.
Since Reagan, republicans–and some Democrats–have been on a quixotic anti-government crusade to privatize America’s common infrastructure to placate their billionaire donors and lobbyists at our expense.
Government is not “the problem.”
Unfettered laissez-faire capitalism is.
The cancer at the core of our democracy is money.
Money, particularly dark money, in politics has created the conditions for the rot to set in, and all that’s left is for it to spread until the house collapses.
While we haven’t slipped into full-on fascism yet, a recent Global State of Democracy (GSoD Indices) report from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance includes the United States for the first time in its annual list of “backsliding” democracies.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
The United States is not lost.
We still have time to pull ourselves back from the precipice.
Just look at our history.
Our “Great Depression” of the 1930s was part of a global depression that sent people scrambling for anything and anyone who would promise them respite, succor, and hope.
Most European countries embraced fascists, namely Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.
Japan did as well.
We could have gone that way too.
Instead, we elected Franklin Roosevelt, who not only promised relief from our economic and social woes, but returned us to a more democratic, prosperous society by implementing progressive reforms intended to lift people up instead of cutting them down.
If we hadn’t risen to the challenge, we likely wouldn’t have been prepared to take on and ultimately defeat European fascism when it came to our shores.
Don’t think there weren’t Nazi sympathizers and fascists here.
The difference was, we chose democracy, for all its frustrations and imperfections.
We need to vote.
We need to organize.
We need to demand a media structure that doesn’t consider white supremacists and domestic terrorists, like those who tried to overthrow our democracy on January 6, as “the other side.”
We need to stop crying about “getting along” with “friends across the aisle” who are anything but friends.
We need to be indefatigable in our calls for a fairer system.
- Universal healthcare
- Tuition-free college education
- Living wages and union jobs
- Paid family leave
- Universal childcare
- A right to housing
- Fully funded public schools that no longer need to rely on property tax revenue
- Raising taxes on the wealthy and closing loopholes that legally allow the richest among us to pay next to nothing in federal taxes.
- Eliminating the cap on Social Security so those making over $142,800 a year still contribute.
- Investing in American jobs by enforcing protectionist trade policies.
- Publicly funding elections that expand voters’ access to the polls and mail-in voting
- Investing in our infrastructure, which includes high-speed broadband, and climate-change resilient construction
- Ridding ourselves of fossil fuels
- Creating a pathway to citizenship for immigrants
- Passing an anti-lynching bill
But democracy isn’t going to continue if we don’t get money out of politics.
If Americans don’t feel their voices are being heard, their cynicism grows.
From cynicism comes strongman oligarchy.