Government Works: Why Reputation Management Could Boost the Progressive Agenda

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Among government’s unsung accomplishments: cleaning up thousands of rivers and lakes

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.”

Our current political dynamic will not change until someone puts forth a thorough, well-conceived, well-financed long-term plan to defend the functions of government in principle and to show the American people that government does in fact do many things well. This effort could take the form of a nonprofit organization that conducts massive–and hip and engaging and most of all nonboring–public-education campaigns to tell people that despite everything they have been led to believe, government actually gets some stuff done. It has cleaned thousands of rivers and lakes, and has improved air quality everywhere. It has invested in and helped make possible thousands of projects in American cities and towns that, to the average person, look like private developments–hotels, convention centers, civic centers, parks. It has helped thousands of small businesses find markets for their goods. Its scientists and inspectors and extension agents–and yes, its regulators!–have limited or prevented public-health calamities, and they spend every day working on making the future safer. No one knows these people exist–and they should know.

The only contacts most people have with the government are unpleasant. Paying taxes. Waiting in line at the DMV or the post office. Cursing and shaking one’s fist when encountering a pothole. Calling a bureaucracy when a problem arises or a loved one dies. (Interestingly, similar commercial contacts–trying to get cable TV installed, say–are no walks in the park, but these don’t color our impression of the entire private sector.) No one–not even the government itself!–attempts to initiate positive contacts. And so, government does things, and people don’t know. It never occurs to your average Joe that the river he couldn’t fish in 20 years ago but now can didn’t just miraculously clean itself. And no one in American political life is bothering to point it out to him. You and I may take for granted that the Environmental Protection Agency did that job, but how many people really stop and think about that? They have to be told.

The Importance of Reputation Management

I know this sounds naive. Or hopeless: Antigovernment feeling is so deeply ingrained that you can never change Americans’ minds. I’m not sure that’s true. Information can change people’s minds. It takes time. But it’s possible. And remember, we don’t have to change everyone’s minds. Just enough to tip the scales in a divided country back in favor of a more pro-government agenda.

Every election season, liberals sit around and say to one another: Why are things the way they are? Why is the progressive candidate bragging about cutting taxes and reducing the size of the federal budget, as Obama will inevitably do? There are many answers to these questions, but the main one is this: Neither Obama nor any politician can stand before the American people and make a case for investing and spending as long as most Americans think the mechanism of that investing and spending is incompetent or evil or both. (A New York Times poll from late October found that only 10 percent of respondents trusted government to do the right thing always or most of the time, the lowest figure since that question was asked starting in the mid-1970s.)

Until those basic perceptions are changed, the broad left is going to be seen by a majority of the public as little better than a drunkard on a street corner begging for change. Why should we give you more money if you’re just going to waste it? Many elected Democrats think the answer to that question is to cut the budget first: Once we’ve shown voters that we’re capable of tightening the belt where necessary, they’ll be more willing to let us use the government as an instrument of change. That may be part of it. But there remains the central question: Is the money going to good use? In a thousand ways, it is. But it’s a story no one is telling. Democrats are afraid to, and the universe of progressive funders and strategists, for whatever reason, hasn’t really thought to.

Some presidential elections will be rearguard actions, like this one. Others might be more like 2008, when the GOP had screwed up the country and people were willing to give the other side a chance. But it should now be manifestly clear that while the voters were rejecting conservative governance, they weren’t necessarily embracing a progressive agenda. And they won’t until the entity that is at the heart of that agenda–government–has a better reputation. The direction of the country won’t change until it does.

Michael Tomasky is the editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas and a special correspondent for Newsweek/The Daily Beast. Excerpted from Democracy: A Journal of Ideas (Winter 2012), a magazine for thoughtful, forward-thinking progressives.

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