We the People

The government is a democratic ideal worth fighting for

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2009 © Chris Lyons / lindgrensmith.com

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After spending  a rousing evening at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Washington, D.C., where I had the honor of toasting the nominees and winners of the 2010 Utne Independent Press Awards (p. 46), my partner, Stacey, and I decided to while away a luminous April morning strolling the National Mall.

It’s a walk I’ve taken many times, but while I was revisiting the monuments I was drawn to the words of our founding fathers, former presidents, and military veterans, which are immortalized in dusty marble and cracking stone. One passage in particular, penned by Thomas Jefferson and inscribed on the southeast interior of the rotunda built in his honor 72 years ago, stirred an emotional wave in me, a mix of pride and melancholy, exhilaration and loss.

“I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions,” Jefferson wrote, “but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change . . . institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times.”

As the noon hour approached, we grabbed a cup of coffee and made our way toward the base of the Washington Monument. A young woman, dressed in a sharply pressed blue suit and accompanied by a cameraman, stepped in front of us on the sidewalk. I stopped and nodded a friendly hello, game to play the role of “man on the mall.”

“What do you think of regulation?” she asked before raising her microphone.

“I’m not sure what you mean,” I said.

“Do you think there’s too much regulation?”

“I’m still not sure what you mean. Too much regulation of what?”

“Well, ah . . . do you think government is too big?”

“I guess I haven’t thought about it that way.”

“OK. Thanks.”

I was not, it seems, ready for prime time—not on this duo’s network, at least.

As the woman moved to the next set of unwitting tourists, I turned to Stacey, cracked a wry smile, and did my best impersonation of seething comedian Lewis Black: “People act like government is a big building, with arms and legs, walking around doing shit.”

Stacey chuckled, because that’s what best friends do, and we walked in silence for a few minutes. Then the caffeine kicked in and I launched into a 10-minute rant about the sorry state of political discourse that would have made Mr. Black proud.

Over the past two decades, mainstream Republicans, who were formerly obsessed with fiscal conservatism and constitutional restraint, have enabled and eventually embraced a crusade against government itself. Instead of arguing about budget priorities, or the scope of states’ rights, these politicians are betraying the American experiment altogether, a fact that makes the Tea Party phenomenon, which wraps itself in the colors and spirit of the American Revolution, even more maddening.

Theirs is a revolution, all right, but it has nothing to do with creating, as the framers of the United States Constitution intended, a “more perfect Union” that ensures domestic tranquility, promotes the general welfare, and secures “the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” Instead, it’s about creating a constituency for powerful interests bent on sacrificing society on an altar built from fear, self-interest, and ignorance.

On the left, there’s a crippling strain of political cynicism, aggravated by the spread of special-interest politics, institutional corruption, and an understandable sense that on a number of fronts—environmental, economic, and moral—the country has already gone around the bend. That disillusionment, especially in the wake of President Obama’s election (which, apparently, was supposed to turn water into wine before the midterm elections), has led otherwise engaged citizens to conclude that participation in government is a waste of time.

While it’s couched in more sophisticated language, ultimately this philosophy simply excuses those who conflate self-righteous complaint with meaningful protest. It also gives too many liberals license to mislabel their laziness as realism (a self-justification that, when I was a kid, was reserved for rich, retired capitalists).

To appreciate the rhetorical consequences of this new fatalism, one need only revisit the interview I wasn’t asked to do on the National Mall. In the media and on the campaign trail, basic, badly needed policy debates over the shape of civil society are increasingly usurped by playground fights over whether taxes are too high or moral standards are too low, the right is evil or the left is unpatriotic, Obama is a socialist or a corporate sellout.

And the practical impact of this shallow, do-nothing discourse dominates the news cycle: corporate malfeasance unchecked on Wall Street; poorly regulated coal mines collapsing in West Virginia; levies languishing in New Orleans; oil leaking in the Gulf of Mexico. And those are just the headlines. America’s education system is a shambles. Consumer protection is a novelty. Social services are a luxury. The hungry starve and the starving wander the sides of our crumbling roads and railroad tracks.

Meanwhile, we toss insults at one another in cyberspace.

There have always been political extremes, of course, but even in the most tumultuous of times, the citizenry demanded that its representatives figure out a way to negotiate their differences and mind the store. Now, opportunistic politicians are not only cheering as the store burns, they’re throwing gas on it. 

For anecdotal evidence of this seismic shift, consider my home state of Minnesota. For the past eight years, Governor Tim Pawlenty, a Republican who is leaving his post to make a hard run at the Oval Office in 2012, has made it a point of pride not to negotiate with a legislature dominated by moderates. While watching the budget deficit balloon, he’s also gone to war against the state’s universities, its most vulnerable citizens, and a once-heralded quality of life. As he heads out the door to attend campaign rallies, high approval numbers in tow, Pawlenty is sure to score points by bragging that he cut the fat and forced tax-and-spenders to make tough decisions. What he won’t say is that, on his watch, a once well-oiled bureaucracy now barely functions.

This critique could be read as a partisan diatribe. In this case, though, my disgust has nothing to do with party differences, at least as they have long been defined. What I cannot stomach is the sentiment that government as a collective, democratic ideal is no longer worth fighting for. If you think I’m overstating the case, consider former Minnesota Governor Arne Carlson, a longtime Republican and strict fiscal conservative who is not only disappointed by his successor’s neglect, he’s broken up by it. A proud booster of the University of Minnesota and loyal friend to the local business community, Carlson is no fan of social welfare programs and was once the sworn enemy of metropolitan Democrats and outstate activists. He does, however, hold the conviction that elected officials are duty-bound to serve as custodians, not craven obstructionists. I’d also venture to guess that more than a few of his harshest critics, me included, would jump at the chance to put him back to work.

Upon returning from the nation’s capital, I began editing the contents of this issue of Utne Reader. As the workdays passed, I started to sense that, despite the best efforts of America’s latest cast of “rogue” reactionaries, there are still shards of light at the end of the ideological tunnel.

Reading “Obama’s Quiet Revolution,” I was reminded that before the president can move forward, he must fix what’s been destroyed and strengthen the regulatory agencies born of the Progressive Era. That process is not only under way, but moving at breakneck speed. After finishing “What Darwin Didn’t Mean,” I became even more convinced that compromise, not dominance, is the engine that will drive forward motion.

Putting together our package on the future of activism, I came away believing that those who ache for a better world can and must begin by rededicating themselves to resuscitating government. Not because it is too big (or too small), but because it is who we are.