The chickens are coming home to roost in American politics. Since the election of Ronald Reagan — who argued that government wasn’t a solution to our problems but, rather, was their cause — increasingly venomous attacks on government at all levels have dominated our political discourse. The neo-liberal ideology that swept people like Reagan and Margaret Thatcher to power in the 1980s rested on the idea that government could do nothing right and individual solutions to people’s problems were preferable to collective ones. The goals of the neo-liberals included reducing the government’s regulatory power, depriving it of resources needed to deliver quality services, and enriching capital by privatizing state operations.
Both parties shared many of these goals. It was Bill Clinton who “ended welfare as we know it” in the mid-1990s and whose deregulation of Wall Street paved the way for the cataclysm of 2008 under Bush II.
It is not our purpose here to debate the pros and cons of particular policy decisions. Our aim, rather, is to point out that making these policies popular required unceasing attacks on virtually all the republic’s core institutions with the exception of the military, which continues to be exalted rhetorically even as its functions, too, are gradually privatized (remember Blackwater).
It is certainly true that public institutions, like all institutions, should be subject to criticism and held accountable to the people they serve. Institutions must function well to earn people’s trust. During the Great Depression, for example, and in the decades following the Second World War, the expansion of government had wide popular support as it undertook projects ranging from the establishment of Social Security and Medicare to the provision of rural electricity, the construction of enormous water systems in the west, the interstate highway system, and, on the state level, the creation of high quality higher education. Americans generally were proud of their public institutions and considered government service an honorable career choice.
Blaming the state for all our ills picked up steam in the 1970s when the post-war prosperity ran aground in the face of the Vietnam War, intensified economic competition from abroad, and the OPEC oil embargos. Seeking to raise profits, corporations launched a massive offensive against labor that continues today and they began the large-scale outsourcing that has crushed wide swathes of the American middle and working classes. Politicians then found it easy to blame “wasteful,” “bureaucratic,” state institutions, such as schools, the state regulatory agencies, and even the post office for people’s economic troubles and to tout lower taxes and smaller government as easy remedies.
The unrelenting assault on “government” has done little to reduce its size and, as the debacle of 2008 showed, its role remains crucial. The attacks have succeeded however, in substantially eroding the legitimacy of the republic itself among small but growing parts of the population. The recent seizure by armed militants of the federal facility in Harney County is a sign of this disaffection. It should serve as a warning to those concerned about preservation of the democratic order and remind us of the value of our public institutions.
The democratic republic we inhabit is not perfect, but it represents the most favorable terrain for reform. For that reason we should reject politicians whose rhetoric serves to undermine the very state they claim they wish to serve.
Salem Weekly editorial board members:
Russ Beaton, Jim Scheppke, William Smaldone, Naseem Rakha, A.P. Walther.