Thinking About the Government

Tom: You got dances, too?

Caretaker: We got the best dances in the county every Saturday night.

Tom: Say, who runs this place?

Caretaker: The government.

-- The Grapes of Wrath, 1940 (screenplay by Nunnally Johnson)

“I've always felt the nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I'm from the government and I'm here to help.'”

-- Ronald Reagan, 1986 (repeating a well-worn one-liner)

Sometimes it really does feel as if it has been 65 years since anyone talked about “the government” in the approving tone that John Steinbeck's characters do, as the protector of the interests of the ordinary man against the rapacity of big business and the vicissitudes of the market. To judge from the ambient chatter -- the cable talk shows, the culty Web sites dedicated to Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, the jokes about how many bureaucrats it takes to change a light bulb (1000-plus hits on Google) -- it seems to be a truth universally acknowledged that government is a really terrible idea. People may be willing to defend particular government programs, but it's hard to find anyone with a good word for the institution of government itself.

In one sense, 65 years is about right. You could trace the roots of that anti-government rhetoric back to 1940, when the Republicans first made a campaign theme of “big government.” The phrase originated as a turn on “big business.” The Republican presidential candidate, Wendell Willkie, declared that the New Deal had supplanted what he called “corporate tyranny” as the greatest threat to individual freedom. “Today it is not big business that we have to fear,” Willkie said. “It is big government.”

But execration of government didn't really take its modern form until the 1970s, when public confidence in government began to decline dramatically from its high postwar levels. Whatever the causes of that anger and disgruntlement -- inflation, Vietnam and Watergate, cynical media coverage, or the decline of community -- it gave rise to a more energetic language of anti-statism. Between the decade ending in 1975 and the one ending in 1985, for example, New York Times references to “getting government off people's backs” and the like went from three to 130, and “big government” tripled in frequency.

By the 1970s, as political scientist Gary Orren of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government observes, government-bashing had become “a powerful stream of dissatisfaction in its own right.” Even many Democrats found it expedient to run as anti-government outsiders, sensing what they took to be the public mood. In 1976, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter vied to see who could most vigorously decry a bloated federal bureaucracy.

But it was Ronald Reagan who perfected the role of the president as First Misarchist (“a person who hates or opposes government,” as the Oxford English Dictionary defines the word). More than anyone else, Reagan transformed the rhetoric of big government from the white-shoes laissez-faireism of Willkie and Dwight Eisenhower to a broader attack on the idea of government itself. “Government is not the solution to the problem,” he said. “It is the problem” -- not a pensée that you could imagine coming from Willkie, Eisenhower, or even Richard Nixon.

Reagan understood, though, that that rhetoric is often better suited to perorations than to policy proposals. People may applaud calls for the reduction of government in the abstract; after all, the only time we ever consider government as a totality is when we're writing a check for it. But they're apt to have misgivings about eliminating specific programs and services. As British essayist Walter Bagehot observed 140 years ago, “If you want to raise a certain cheer in the House of Commons, make a general panegyric on economy; if you want to invite a sure defeat, propose a particular saving.”

That principle seems obvious enough, but both Republicans and Democrats have stumbled politically when they failed to appreciate it. Public support for Newt Gingrich's “Contract with America” evaporated when the House speaker forced the budget showdown with Bill Clinton that ultimately brought the whole government to a halt. It was as if someone who had built a career telling lawyer jokes suddenly announced plans to dynamite the county courthouse.

To Clinton, that seemed the right moment to try to take the big-government issue off the table, particularly given the administration's success in reducing the deficit and discretionary spending and streamlining the bureaucracy. His declaration in his 1996 State of the Union address that “the era of big government is over” signaled a new age of Democratic political rhetoric, dominated by the themes of modesty, markets, and modernity. “There is not a program for every problem,” Clinton reminded Americans, calling for “a smaller, less bureaucratic government in Washington … one that lives within its means.”

In the name of practicality and reduced expectations, Democrats became more enthusiastic about deregulation and privatization, and about the rhetoric that goes with them. In his memoir, Take on the Street, for example, Clinton's Securities and Exchange Commission chairman, Arthur Levitt, recounts how senators like Evan Bayh, Joe Lieberman, Ron Wyden, and Chuck Schumer joined with Republicans to block the implementation of stricter standards of auditor independence (that, in retrospect, might have prevented the Enron scandal) and how the great majority of Senate Democrats like Barbara Boxer, Bill Bradley, and Dianne Feinstein battled efforts to require companies to expense stock options, all in the name of enhancing America's competitiveness and encouraging innovation.

That's typical of the way Democrats have wholeheartedly embraced the rhetoric of the new economy, pointedly rejecting the “tired liberal solutions” of the past. In his recent book, The Past and Future of America's Economy, the Progressive Policy Institute's Robert T. Atkinson argues that the “top-heavy centralized government” of the New Deal and the Great Society reflected the outmoded managerial economy of the mass-production age. Now, he says, Democrats must abandon “the old economy Keynesian, Great Society economic framework” in favor of “a fundamentally new approach to government, one that relies more on networks than hierarchy, more on civic and private sector actors than bureaucracy, and more on technology than on rule-based, bureaucratic programs.”

The third way meets the third wave -- the rhetoric evokes echoes of Newt Gingrich, another technological determinist who dismissed classic liberalism as being on the wrong side of economic history and as having “rejected any hope of salvation through technological innovation.” Except that Atkinson is coming a little late to this party: That “networked society” patter has become a bit outdated in the business world, where the tech crash and changing managerial fashion have dimmed the luster of corporate decentralization. (In business and management publications last year, the term “virtual organization” was used only 20 percent as frequently as it was in 2000.) More important, Atkinson's picture of Great Society as smokestack government is both a caricature of the programs' real accomplishments and a self-defeating way of disparaging the traditions from which Democrats continue to draw their greatest strength. A recent Democracy Corps poll found that helping the neediest and expanding opportunities are still among the party's strongest positive attributes, behind only equal rights and environmental protection.

In the name of modernity, Democrats have been abandoning not just the principles but the language that has historically defined the party, instead using a defensively anti-government rhetoric that they can never really own -- “talking the other guy's talk,” as E. J. Dionne Jr. calls it in Stand Up and Fight Back. As Dionne observes, Democrats have reached the point where every policy has to be justified in the language of the economic marketplace. “We used to call for immunizing little children against disease,” he quotes Ann Lewis as saying. “Now we call it an investment in human capital.” That makes it hard for Democrats to defend policies simply on grounds of moral obligation, or to maintain that there are things that only the government can do precisely because such functions have no narrowly economic justification.

New Democrats argue that the language of modest expectations is dictated by the current zeitgeist; they cite polls showing that an increasing number of Americans prefer smaller government even if it means fewer services. It makes political sense for Democrats to call for government that is effective and accountable, and for easing the tax burden of wage earners and the middle class. But that doesn't mean that Democrats won't have popular support as they rise to the defense of government programs like Social Security, Medicare, education spending, or domestic security. As Walter Bagehot might have said, people's enthusiasm for smaller government is apt to wane on the first heavy snow day.

The Democrats' big mistake has been to imagine that they could neutralize the big-government issue simply by adopting the Republicans' rhetoric and disparaging traditional liberalism in the bargain. Writing in 2000, White House speechwriter Michael Waldman noted that within a few years after Clinton had announced the end of big government, “the tax-cutting, government-hating strain of the GOP had lost its political potency.” That proved to be less than prophetic. Notwithstanding Clinton's considerable accomplishments in reducing the actual size of government, those on the right scarcely missed a beat: They interpreted Clinton's pronouncement as a concession speech, an admission of the bankruptcy of the policies that conservatives had been attacking since the days of the New Deal. The Weekly Standard made that crystal clear in the headline it gave to its story on Clinton's speech: “We Win!” And rhetorically speaking, they were dead right.

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While Democrats, including many liberals, have been temporizing and extenuating about defending government's role, Republicans have been able to have the argument both ways. They attack “big government” as a matter of principle, but don't hesitate to use government when it proves convenient, or to champion programs that polls show to be popular.

Because “big government” is suffused with the ideology of the right, George W. Bush can use the phrase to attack Democratic proposals in full confidence that audiences will hear its anti-liberal undertones, just as they do when he uses a word like “values” -- the bad faith of the Democrats is simply presupposed. “On issue after issue, from Medicare without choices to schools with less accountability to higher taxes on working Americans, my opponent takes the side of more centralized control and bigger government,” Bush said of John Kerry during the 2004 campaign. Or Bush can exploit mistrust of government to argue for moving payroll taxes into private accounts, where “the money in the account is yours, and the government can never take it away.”

But Bush also realizes that most voters actually value a lot of what government does. He eschews the hard-line rhetoric of the gangsta libertarians, realizing that there is little broad enthusiasm for privatization and deregulation. Following the advice of Frank Luntz, the administration has dropped its references to “deregulation” in favor of phrases like “commonsense solutions,” and Bush himself never talks about “getting government off people's backs.” Often, in fact, he's hard to distinguish from a New Democrat. “Government should be focused, effective, and close to the people,” he has said. “We are using an active government to promote self-government.”

That approach has left Bush amenable to creating new government programs or expanding entitlements, particularly if he can steal the Democrats' thunder on education or health care (though the actual programs often turn out to be subsidies for business allies). Some conservatives may complain indignantly about “big-government conservatism,” but Bush knows he can get away with rhetorical and policy inconsistency here: Voters will always tend to give Republicans the benefit of the doubt on big government, whereas the party has to work to prove its bona fides on “compassion.” In this process, Bush does not seem much concerned that he will compromise himself by trying to “out-Democrat the Democrats.” “If voters want bigger government, they'll return to the genuine article,” warned Republican Representative Jeff Flake, explaining why he was voting against the prescription-drug bill. But why should that concern Republicans when Democrats have been more skittish about proposing new entitlements than they have?

In the end, Bush seems to be less interested in contracting government generally than in reducing its role as a buffer between ordinary people and corporate interests. But unlike earlier anti-government conservatives, Bush has done much of this under cover of language designed to assuage people's concerns that the Republicans will be leaving them at the mercy of the marketplace.

The strategy takes a number of forms. Having realized that “private” and “privatization” set voters' antennae to quivering, Republicans maintain that they are simply trying to “save” the current Social Security system, and have pressured the media to talk about “personal accounts” rather than “private accounts” (even though Bush himself was still talking about “private accounts” as recently as February).

In a broader way, Republican language is calculated to obscure the relation between government and corporate interests. That began in the 1970s, when adversaries of “big government” began to omit the references to its original counterpart, “big business.” In fact, the Bush administration mentions “big business” as little as possible, invariably framing programs and policies that benefit corporations and wealthy investors in terms of their advantages to “small business.” (On the site, references to “small business” outnumber references to “big business” by nearly 100 to 1, even after you eliminate mentions of the Small Business Administration.)

That's the same principle that has led Republicans to extend the meanings of “ownership” and “entrepreneur” in ways that blur the difference between investors and working Americans, with the implication that the two groups are united in a perfect community of economic interests. Last fall, for example, then–Commerce Secretary Don Evans criticized Kerry for citing employment figures that “ignore the some 10 million workers … that are the entrepreneurs who are self-employed like truck drivers, like painters, like child-care workers, like hairdressers, like auto mechanics.” As Republicans tell the story, there's a small triumph for entrepreneurship in every employee who has been laid off from a regular job and rehired on a piecework basis.

In the same way, Republicans describe privatization entirely in terms of its advantages to the citizen-consumer, rather than to the corporations that are providing the services. If libertarian Republicans ever succeed in eliminating the IRS and outsourcing its collection functions to Visa and MasterCard, you can bet they'll proclaim it a victory for consumer choice.

In politics, using deceptive and oblique language is always an implicit acknowledgement that the public needs to be shielded from the unvarnished truth of things. The indirection of the Republicans' language implicitly concedes that a public presented with a bald choice between entrusting the government or corporations with power over their lives might very well prefer the former. People may mistrust government in the abstract, but they have no illusions about the public-spiritedness of insurance companies, HMOs, credit-card companies, or the pharmaceutical industry. As Stanley Greenberg reports in The Two Americas, a substantial majority of voters, including a majority of Republicans, believe that government regulation of business and corporations is necessary to protect the public.

E. J. Dionne has written that the most important question that progressives have to raise is, “Whose side is government on?” [See “Democratic Détente,” TAP, June 2004.] The crucial thing about that formulation is that it puts government back in the middle, between ordinary people and corporations or business interests. That way of talking stands in sharp contrast to the specious dualism that puts government on one side and “the people” on the other, with corporations and the privileged swept neatly out of sight. It's a call for Democrats to remind voters that government has a role to play in “the struggle between the people and the powerful,” as Al Gore said in the 2000 campaign. Contrary to conventional wisdom, as John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira have noted [see “Why Democrats Must Be Populists,” TAP, September 9, 2002], New Democrats are wrong to claim that that populist rhetoric cost Gore middle-class support, or that it was interpreted as “anti-growth.” As Clinton demonstrated in his 1992 campaign, there's nothing in a pro-growth, tax-reducing agenda that precludes taking on the “jet-setters and feather bedders of corporate America” in the bargain.

True, Republicans will try to pin a big-government label on the Democrats, but the appropriate response to that is not to apologize for government, as some liberals have recently done, but rather to call the Republicans' bluff. Kerry just once might have responded to Bush's charge that he was a big-government liberal not just by denying that his health-care plan was a government takeover but by bearding Bush on his government-bashing. “Just which government programs are too big?” he might have said. “What should we do away with? Social Security? Medicare? The Food and Drug Administration? The Securities and Exchange Commission? The Environmental Protection Agency?”

Up until now, though, the Democrats' self-defeating embrace of anti-government rhetoric has made them diffident about confronting the Republicans in this way -- this despite ample recent opportunities in the form of the bankruptcy bill, the bill limiting class-action lawsuits, and the Medicaid cuts in the current budget. It's only in the battle over Social Security privatization that Democrats are coming to realize that there are political advantages to revisiting their historical defense of government's role. It isn't enough just to underscore the risks of the president's privatization proposal or to point out that it does nothing to resolve the long-term funding problem. Democrats should also point out that Social Security is a perfect example of something that government can handle best. What it comes down to is whether voters trust the government or Wall Street fund managers with their money. Given that choice, it's clear which way the majority of voters will go.

That strategy is important not just as a means of resisting the administration's efforts to outsource the essential functions of government. It's also an essential part of the campaign to restore the Democrats' cloudy brand identity. This is key to the Democrats' revival. The recent Democracy Corps survey found that 55 percent of voters said the Republicans know what they stand for, as opposed to only 27 percent who said the same thing of Democrats. You can see that disparity reflected in news stories, where Republicans are identified in terms of an ideological reference point far more often than Democrats are. For example, “mainstream Republican” is four times more common than “mainstream Democrat.” And while middle-of-the-road Republicans are usually described as “moderates,” which locates them relative to the party's mainstream, middle-of-the-road Democrats tend to be called “centrists,” which locates them relative to the broader political horizon. In the public mind, “Republican” is a specific address, whereas “Democrat” is only a ZIP code.

True, there are lots of issues the Democrats have to engage to restore their brand luster, like national security, values, and “the vision thing.” But it's hard to see what enduring political identity there could be for a Democratic Party that's no longer united around its historical vision of government's positive role. In 1941, Franklin Delano Roosevelt described the Democrats as “a party which believes that, as new conditions and problems arise beyond the power of men and women to meet as individuals, it becomes the duty of government itself to find new remedies with which to meet them.” If that vision doesn't still define the party, what could take its place?

Geoffrey Nunberg is a senior researcher at the Center for the Study of Language and Information at Stanford.