Government Works: Why Reputation Management Could Boost the Progressive Agenda

Against the attacks of the conservative movement, the progressive agenda should embrace the positive functions of government, like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

| May/June 2012

  • Government-Works
    Among government’s unsung accomplishments: cleaning up thousands of rivers and lakes

  • Government-Works

Thinking about the unfolding Republican presidential primary process inevitably carries me back four years. How different it all felt! Whether one supported Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, or the pre-scandal John Edwards, one could feel confident and enthusiastic.

George W. Bush was functionally finished, and more than that, conservatism itself seemed on life support in a way it hadn’t been since the rise of the modern conservative movement. I remember thinking at the time: The Bush era was the experience Americans had had with a conservative government that failed them. There had been only one previous modern conservative administration, Ronald Reagan’s, and it was, to the average American, a relative success. But Bush had made things worse by nearly every measure, and this was before the economic meltdown. Maybe Americans would now be open to a different approach.

I don’t need to rehearse the history between then and now. We all know it, and most of it is too depressing anyway. The overwhelming feeling has to do with what has not been accomplished, and what we now know has almost no chance of being accomplished, even if Barack Obama wins reelection (and remembering that there’s a decent chance the Republicans might take control of the Senate). The tax code won’t be made more progressive. Inequality will continue to worsen. Nothing close to the needed amount of money will be invested in infrastructure or innovation. Climate change will not be addressed. There will be no major reforms of the political system. And so on. On top of that, if recent history is a guide, the Republicans (assuming they retain control of at least one house of Congress and thus have subpoena power) in all likelihood will gin up some phony scandal and bay for impeachment, or find other ways to keep throwing sand in Washington’s gears.

What a different perspective events have imposed on us: Four years ago, we really could be hopeful about change. In 2012, the election will simply be about trying to tread water and making sure we don’t drown. We can bemoan this (and I do). But we can also study it, think about it, try to draw lessons from it. The obvious lesson is that one election can’t change the country in a more progressive direction. Well, then, what can?

When Government Works

It is undeniably the case that all of our ideological battles in this country eventually come down to government. Its size and scope and legitimacy—that is to say, the questions of political philosophy—and then, even if one acknowledges some degree of legitimacy for it, the practical question of whether it can do anything right. Conservatives and Republicans have been, as we know, making mendacious but awfully effective arguments on both fronts for three decades. And it gets even worse: In a cruel and surreal and self-perpetuating farce, Republicans let government fail while they are in power (FEMA in New Orleans, financial regulators and the crash) by not executing the missions of the agencies in question, and then, after the failure, turning around to chortle: “See? Government can’t prevent these things!”

Oddly, no one on the liberal side really defends government much. In the progressive solar system there are groups devoted to every specific issue and cause you can name, but there is no group I’m aware of that is devoted to the simple premise of standing up in public and saying: Government does this, and it’s good. Democratic politicians don’t do it either. Obama has done it from time to time, but not on any sort of consistent basis. He did it well in April 2011 in a speech at George Washington University, mounting a defense of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid: “We’re a better country because of these commitments. I’ll go further. We would not be a great country without those commitments.”

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