In January, a new wave of anti-government, anti-tax zealots took power in statehouses, governors' mansions, and the U.S. House of Representatives. Emboldened by their wins, conservative politicians across the country are now systematically dismantling public programs and services, attacking public employees, privatizing public goods, and drawing lines in the sand against any and all tax increases.
Their themes are familiar: Government is in the way and has no role to play in an economic recovery, taxes are always bad, tax cuts will spur growth, public programs are wasteful and unnecessary, private companies can do a better job, public workers are lazy and coddled, public spending is the root of our problems.
At the core of nearly every roiling fiscal debate today is an argument over the role of government in American society.
What's novel is the pervasiveness of anti-government rhetoric and the difficulty that some progressive advocates, community leaders, and elected officials have had in offering a consistent, coherent, and forceful defense of government and its role. But as the 2010 election showed in states as diverse as Colorado, Massachusetts, and California, others rose to the occasion -- and won.
At the core of nearly every roiling fiscal and policy discussion today is a contest over the role of government in American society. For the foreseeable future, and certainly through the next two election cycles, this is the debate that will shape all others. It is time to fight back, to affirm the essential connection between the health of our public sector and the success of our private economy. We must make the case that our quality of life is linked directly to how well or poorly we maintain and adapt the public systems, structures, and services we have built up over generations.
Contradictions in public opinion reveal that negative attitudes toward government are not as monolithic as some would want us to believe. As President Barack Obama noted in his April 13 speech at George Washington University, Americans carry around internal contradictions about government. "Most Americans," he said, "tend to dislike government spending in the abstract but like the stuff that it buys. Most of us, regardless of party affiliation, believe that we should have a strong military and a strong defense. Most Americans believe we should invest in education and medical research. Most Americans think we should protect commitments like Social Security and Medicare."
Evidence of the latent support for the actual things government does and delivers was on full display during the recent congressional recess. The blowback Republicans received from their constituents over proposed cuts and changes to Medicare was an important crack in the anti-government facade (as was Democrat Kathy Hochul's upset victory in New York's special election on May 24). In Wisconsin, Ohio, Illinois, and other states, citizens grasped what is at stake when government is attacked -- and fought back. (See David Moberg, "Wisconsin: From Protest to Movement")
So how do we harness the nascent civic energy and resistance to mount a more direct and coherent defense of government? How can we reconnect the dots between the things people care about in their communities and the role that an adequately supported and properly focused government plays in achieving shared goals and aspirations?
For the past nine years, my colleagues and I at the Public Works program at Demos have been working on this challenge. We have sponsored a series of research efforts that have explored the hidden reasoning people use when thinking about government. Our goal was to uncover what the "lack of trust" poll numbers actually mean. And we have taken what we learned to more than two dozen states, working with community leaders, public officials, and advocates to change how people perceive and interact with government.
If we are to alter the public conversation about government, we must overcome three dominant perceptions:
When most Americans think about government, the primary image that comes to their mind is that of a partisan slugfest. Regarding government as "just politics," people apply negative stereotypes of elected officials -- corrupt and partisan -- to the whole system. This view also leads people to act as passive spectators rather than as participants in public life. They have difficulty seeing government as "us" -- as a collective tool for achieving common goals and aspirations.
The Bureaucratic Blob.
Americans also envision government as a large and blurry bureaucracy whose functions are unclear. The active network of public agencies, employees, and services carrying out important public functions every day is obscure. As a result, Americans tend to exaggerate waste, bloat, and inefficiency and are confused over where tax money goes and what it supports.
Government as Vending Machine.
The third challenge is a cultural one. We live in a highly consumerist society, and its habits damage the civic realm. When people approach government as mere consumers of services, they want to know what's in it for them, and what it's going to cost. This stance obscures the government actions that benefit the whole community, protecting our shared public interests and purposes.
Any efforts to engage the public with government more productively must be cognizant of these three powerful drivers of perception.
Negative views of government may dominate, but they are not as entrenched as many believe, and there are concrete ways to awaken a more civic-minded attitude toward the public sector and its role. When people are reminded of the unique mission and purpose of public systems and structures, they can engage in questions about government in a problem-solving manner. Despite the power of consumerist thinking, people are ready to be called to act as civic-minded participants in community life.
There are three core elements of a transformed public conversation:
Mission and Purpose.
To get beyond the superficial understanding of government as nothing more than a political spectator sport, we must speak directly to its unique and important purpose: Government's job is to plan for the future, to be a good steward of our resources, and to build and preserve community life. Government is how we accomplish things together that we could never do individually. Even when we are frustrated with particular actions or are working to hold government accountable, we must uphold the underlying mission and purpose of the public sector while offering our critiques. In fact, calling government to live up to its best principles has a strong tradition in progressive activism.
Systems and Structures.
Government is only dimly understood by most Americans; few comprehend the scope and diversity of its day-to-day work. We need to highlight the many public mechanisms underpinning our quality of life -- the functioning of our economy, the safety and security of our communities -- to foster more awareness of government as a system.
To elevate a citizen stance toward government and combat the pitfalls of consumerist thinking, we need to reinforce notions of interdependence. The well-being of our communities depends on how we work together and support each other. We must call on people to play a role -- to be partners with their government in addressing problems and creating opportunities.
Two examples from last fall -- in the midst of the most anti-government election cycle in memory -- show how concerted efforts to use these principles can change the public debate, turn the tide against anti-government forces, and win. In Colorado, voters soundly rejected "The Bad Three" -- ballot initiatives that would have resulted in dramatic funding cuts to state and local services and banned the use of debt by the state of Colorado.
The widespread effort to defeat the measures was notable for its message consistency. From state leaders to local librarians, vocal opponents kept the focus on what was at risk for the state and its communities. "What Kind of Colorado Do You Want?" was the explicit question they consistently put forth, warning that the proposals would "threaten the backbone of our community." Consider this critique of the initiatives from the Fort Collins Board of Realtors: "Realtors have become 'quality of life' brokers. FCBR firmly believes if any of these measures are to pass, our community's quality of life will be greatly diminished, and the impacts will be overwhelming." Or the editorial authored by state Rep. Randy Baumgardner, who argued that the proposed measures were misguided: "These initiatives would be devastating to our local governments and school districts, placing burdensome requirements on their ability to plan and budget appropriately for the future. Additionally, they would cripple the state's ability to meet demands for a growing population and crumbling infrastructure."
The votes weren't even close -- all of the initiatives were defeated by more than 2-to-1 margins. In hailing the defeat of those measures, the Colorado Progressive Coalition echoed the themes of the campaign, extolling the unique role of government to which Colorado voters had responded. "The failure of A60, A61, and Prop 101 by more than 68% illustrates the strength and commitment that Coloradans have to strong communities," the coalition said. "We value equal opportunities, a strong infrastructure, safety and efficient government. We care about the services that are available and provided to EVERYONE in our state. We understand that we are stronger when we pull our tax dollars together. We sent this message out to the anti-tax and anti-government faction loud and clear. Colorado is worth it!"
With an eloquent governor and a broad spectrum of advocates making the case for public systems and services, Massachusetts offers another example of how to fight back against anti-government attacks. In a very difficult year for Democrats, Gov. Deval Patrick, a leader who regularly invests his own political capital to defend affirmative government, won re-election by 7 points against a strong Republican challenger.
Patrick has consistently called on the citizens of Massachusetts to see themselves as part of a commonwealth that has been built and maintained over generations. He also articulates the critical role played by the public sector in the state's quality of life, as he did in his 2011 Inaugural Address. "Look around you," he began. "The University of Massachusetts and MIT, the Mass Pike, the park or rink in your neighborhood, the T, the good school in the distinguished old building down the block, the world-class hospital, Tanglewood, Logan Airport, the police and fire stations and the people who serve in them -- none of it sprang fully formed from thin air. Each is the result of our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents asking themselves what they must do in their time to leave things better for the generation to come, and then sacrificing for it. They saw their stake not just in themselves but in their neighbors; not just in their times but in tomorrow. They bore their generational responsibility. Now, so must we."
A call to civic responsibility and the protection of public systems also animated the successful 2010 Election Day defeat in Massachusetts of an effort to roll back the 5 percent state sales tax from its temporary emergency rate of 6.25 percent to just 3 percent, which would have resulted in a loss of $2.5 billion to the state budget. The campaign to defeat this ballot measure articulated the impact that such a rollback would have on the quality of community life in Massachusetts. "The sales tax," said one piece of campaign literature, "helps pay for things we all value and rely on. We all want good schools, police and fire protection, safe roads and bridges, clean water and quality health care. Cutting the sales tax by more than half will prevent us from achieving these goals we share. Our communities rely on local aid to pay for schools, public safety, and emergency services. Local aid has already been cut by 25 percent in the last two years, forcing communities to reduce services. ... The recession has forced communities to reduce services. We cannot keep cutting without doing lasting harm to our schools, health care and the services that strengthen our communities."
Certainly, other Election Day results were deeply disappointing. It is worth recognizing, however, that in Colorado and Massachusetts, the opponents of the tax-cut ballot measures made effective cases for why government matters. Even in difficult economic times, people were able to look beyond their own pocketbook anxieties and make practical decisions about public systems and services. In both states, the coalitions that formed to defeat anti-tax measures are now on the offensive. They are building campaigns to support fiscal reforms that will raise new revenues and support essential services.
Other notable successes also bucked the anti -- government trend. Candidates for governor in Rhode Island, Connecticut, Minnesota, and California ran with a message that taxes would need to be raised to protect public services, and they won. These victories are noteworthy in the face of the mainstream media's assertion that the election cycle was evidence of a broad anti-government, anti-spending, and anti-tax success. The real story is not so simple. Good work is going on all around the country to change this debate -- and to win it.