Jamming the cycle of failure
One of the most imposing hurdles progressives have to overcome in making the case for their vision of the future has to do with trust in government. This problem has cropped up as a sort of rogue wave at the intersection of a number of trends in our political and cultural environment. Conservatives have driven this dynamic by openly trashing government whenever possible. But it wouldn't have happened as deeply without a whole series of boosts from a few other trends, including cynicism resulting from the rise of broadcast politics and the unchecked explosion of genuinely transfixing hypercapitalist consumer culture, on top of an increasingly regressive tax code combined with flat wages resulting in an ever tightening middle class squeeze.
The essence of the problem is this dynamic where conservative approaches to government fail, and with their well developed narrative-setting capabilities, they set these failures up as symbols of the impossibility of government. The Katrina response was the worst and most horrifying example of this yet: Bill O'Reilly wasted no time at all spinning it into an anti-government narrative. The worse and more spectacular the failure, the more haters they generate, the worse things get, and on and on.
Driving a wedge into this destructive cycle won't be easy, but Stan Greenberg and his firm have done some solid research into this area, and they have an article in this month's American Prospect. They lay out the problem starkly:
By failing so dramatically, conservatives have created a significant roadblock for Democrats: They have undermined people's faith in the very instrument that we as progressives want to use to solve problems....By 57 percent to 29 percent, Americans believe that government makes it harder for people to get ahead in life instead of helping people. Sixty-two percent in a Pew study said they believe elected officials don't care what people like them think, and the same number believe that whenever something is run by the government it is probably inefficient and wasteful. The Democracy Corps study found that an emphatic 83 percent say that if the government had more money, it would waste it rather than spend it well.
It's an entire universe of ugly data. They toss out some solutions, but they have serious issues of scope and appeal. This dog don't seem like it's going to hunt:
Resist the temptation to remain the protector and defender of the federal government. Instead, seize the mantle of change and accountability. Demand that government performs and produces results that improve people's everyday lives.
The rest of the suggestions are variations on the same theme - accountability, more accountability, ethics reform. These things are important, but it's hard to see to discern the path towards an inspiring new vision for the country. So here, respectfully, are a few countersuggestions:
Inspire people to defend government. Government is the extension of our democracy: we have to start telling stories that include in a positive role. It's fine to say the system is broken, but we always need to couple that with the possibility for a functioning government. We need to remind the country that our government is part of the story of American greatness: it's the mechanism by which we won the Civil War, enacted the New Deal, defeated the Nazis, grew a huge middle class, put a man on the moon, invested in the technologies that fed the Clinton Boom of the 90s, etc etc.
Build participatory politics. When the switch flips from "government is them" to "government is us," people's attitudes about it change a lot. We have to build a politics that is more fun than television. It's doable, but the hardest part is cutting through the initial wall of cynicism this dynamic has created. The best way to do that is good old fashioned person to person contact, whether it's over the net, sitting at a voter registration table, on the phone or neighbor to neighbor.
Do something about the middle class squeeze. This is a long term solution, but we have to get started. As long as wages remain flat and we're looking at a gilded age economy for the top 0.01%, investment in society is going to remain a tough sell even if people do regain some measure of trust in ourselves.
Dust off Galbraith's countervailing powers. Part of our story has to include balance between government, large corporations, labor and independent political movements. We've gotten this balance right before, and we can do it again.
The key is reigniting people's hope for the future. We have to run straight at Reagan's formulation of government being the problem that continues to bounce around the country's psyche so much today. Government can be a solution. We have a long process of rebuilding people's faith in democracy in government and in themselves in front of us. But government is the physical representation of democracy, and you can't be against one without being against both.