Government Is Good
By Bernie Horn
May 4, 2009 - 7:51am ET
The outbreak of H1N1 influenza should remind Americans that the very basis of modern conservatism—the idea that “government is the problem”—is demonstrably false. When individuals and corporations are unable or unwilling to solve major problems, the only solution is government.
Right now, next to no one wishes the Centers for Disease Control didn’t exist. Normally, Americans take such government services for granted. But their viewpoint changes a bit during a public health emergency, especially when they feel personally threatened.
Why don’t Americans appreciate the crucial role of government every day? After all, it’s a small step from the CDC addressing the influenza threat to the FDA dealing with salmonella in our food or the CPSC keeping lead off of our children’s toys. Why don't they see that we need government to combat pollution and counter global warming? To build and maintain bridges, roads, and levees? To regulate the banking industry after the worst financial crisis in recent memory? To create jobs during the sharpest economic downturn since the Great Depression?
Sorry, average Americans don’t automatically see it—they don’t tend to appreciate government. Instead, they dislike and distrust the processes of government even as they take government services for granted. Here are three reasons why:
1) Americans have disliked government for more than two hundred years.
They (we) have always agreed with Thomas Paine’s lament that “[g]overnment, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil.” Polls show that Americans have liked government even less since the 1960s.
When citizens hear the word government, what pictures pop into their heads? Frustrating ones! They’re pictures of the surly postal clerk, the incompetent IRS help line, and the slow-as-molasses Department of Motor Vehicles.
Dēmos, a widely respected public policy organization, carried out a comprehensive study that tells us how Americans think about government. Essentially, the public holds two stereotypes: one depicts government in terms of partisan and corrupt government officials, the other depicts it in terms of a bloated and wasteful bureaucracy. That’s not to say that citizens are convinced “government is the problem” or that it’s futile to attempt public solutions. But reframing government is quite a challenge.
The Dēmos research demonstrates that Americans generally don’t feel an ownership interest in government. Instead, they tend to see themselves as consumers of government. So our long-term project must be “avoiding portraying government as a laundry list of services that individuals ‘buy’ with their tax dollars; and emphasizing our shared responsibility to maintain the public structures, services, and programs that create our quality of life.”
2) The right wing has carried out a concerted program to make Americans dislike and distrust government even more.
Just look at recent events where conservatives have made the preposterous argument that the blame for the financial crisis rests on Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Barney Frank, and the Community Reinvestment Act.
Conservatives also use clever message framing to exacerbate the public’s jaundiced view of government—by calling our national government Washington. Now, most of the work of the federal government is actually done outside Washington, D.C. Federal roads, parks, and military bases, federal prosecutors and courts, federal inspectors, enforcers, and administrators are located in every region of the country. So why Washington?
Well, it is literally far away for most voters. They can’t identify with it; it’s an alien place. They may know and like their local park ranger, but they don’t know anybody who works in the headquarters of the Department of the Interior.
3) Perhaps most important, the mainstream media constantly puts politics, politicians, and government in a bad light.
That’s because negative is news. The very definition of news is what happened today that’s different from yesterday. Positive information doesn’t usually become known on a specific date—so it lacks a “hard news” hook. The fact that a city agency is running efficiently or a state program is succeeding will almost never appear in the news media. But it just takes one mistake, one bad apple, or one bit of bad luck to see government officials and policies excoriated. NBC Nightly News goes so far as to run a regular anti-government feature called “The Fleecing of America.”
Furthermore, news that highlights social problems tends to make it look like government is ineffective. Crime seems like the fault of incompetent police or lenient courts. Bad test scores seem like the fault of “failing schools.” Pick up any major newspaper and see if you can find a single hard-news story that casts government in a positive light.
For decades, polls have shown that politicians are among the least trusted of professionals. Every two years since 1988, at least 40 percent of persuadable voters have said they “think that quite a few of the people running the government are crooked.” And, with the exception of 2002, every two years since 1988 at least 60 percent of persuadable voters said they think that government wastes “a lot of money.” The media is responsible for a great deal of this negativity.
Unfortunately, public cynicism suits the interests of right wingers.
If government can’t be trusted, shouldn’t we give up trying? If government can’t make a difference, why bother to participate in the political process? So our framing challenge is that much greater. Persuadable voters will always evaluate political information through a filter that’s rather negative about the way things are. That’s why the most successful progressive messages—like the ones used by President Obama—frame how things ought to be.
The writer is a Senior Fellow at Campaign for America’s Future and author of the recent book, "Framing the Future: How Progressive Values Can Win Elections and Influence People."
Help us spread the word about these important stories...
Email to a friend
Views expressed on this page are those of the authors and not necessarily those of Campaign for America's Future or Institute for America's Future