Government is Good for You

Hundreds of thousands of people on the Gulf Coast must be wishing they had more, not less, government.

The effects of Hurricane Katrina will be felt for years. Financially the reconstruction of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast will cost unknown billions of dollars and resources. We still don't know how many are dead. One of America's icon cities may never recover.

Perhaps equally profound, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina may cause some Americans to reevaluate their views of government. On the one hand, it may make some Americans more pessimistic about government. As we watched helplessly on our TV sets the rising pools of water drown an entire region and its people, followed by the feeble federal response, unfortunately some Americans' belief in the power of government to help people took a dunking.

But that would be the wrong conclusion to draw from this tragic episode. If the federal government and its various agencies had been better prepared for this entirely predictable natural catastrophe, there is little doubt that the damage and death toll would have been much reduced. The better conclusion is that government, done correctly, really has an indispensable role to play. An efficient and effective government can improve our lives, whether in times of crisis or over the long haul.

"Unfortunately," says Yvonne Lee, former commissioner with the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, "the far right have for years asserted that the federal government is a problem, not a solution in Americans' lives. Yet Katrina has served as a costly reminder that the federal government can, and must, serve the public good."

Indeed, going back to Ronald Reagan's presidency, the right wing has mounted an ideological campaign to malign government and portray it as "part of the problem." Newt Gingrich and George W. Bush continued this ideological attack, a calculated conservative strategy 30 years in the making, to enact huge tax cuts by portraying government as an ineffectual bumbler and sugar daddy for welfare queens and other wasteful programs.

Bill Clinton signed up the Democrats for this detail when, with one eye on re-election, he declared in his 1995 State of the Union Address that the "era of big government is over." Even today, political opportunists of all stripes are willing to scapegoat government to win elections, even if it means undermining government itself.

Not surprisingly, given this incessant attack against government, the public's confidence has waned. And with it has waned our belief in representative democracy itself, because if the American people don't have much use for government, then what use is democracy? Thus, this ideological attack on government has formed the philosophical underpinnings for an attack on democracy itself, even as we try to export democracy to the Middle East.

The reputation of government is suffering from a massive public relations crisis. It gets no credit for the good things it does, and all the blame and scorn for the mistakes it makes.

But whether the service is delivering the mail, taking care of seniors via Social Security and Medicare, constructing roads and highways, telecommunications, hospitals, schools, defense, scientific research, national parks, railroads, airways and waterways, environmental protection, the Internet, and much, much more, government has been the leading player, oftentimes partnering with America's businesses.

Government has been the driving force behind regulating the economy, interest rates and inflation, as well as creating policies that grow and maintain the middle class such as pro-homeownership, worker protections, the 40 hour workweek and paid vacations and holidays. And yes, the federal government has been there many times in the past to shoulder the burden following natural disasters.

Americans should be proud of the many accomplishments of their government. Yet while Americans display a high degree of patriotism, much of that is not identified with "the government" but with "the nation." This bifurcation in the American consciousness is a distortion of reality, and substantially a result of the relentless far-right campaign against government.

Political leaders should look for ways to make government credible and desirable in the minds of the American people. To enhance its credibility, government also should be honest about admitting its failures. This public relations challenge would remind the public what government has done, both well and badly, and what remains to be done.

Part of the solution is to use conventional means to counteract this anti-government propaganda blitz. Just as any business knows, advertising is essential to marketing and branding your product. Government should advertise its accomplishments just like a business does through TV and radio ads, reminding the public of the good things it accomplishes.

A potential advertising theme could be "Government Is Good for You," with the ads showing the many ways that government does good things for individuals and communities, from providing direct services to producing regulations that facilitate business providing direct services.

Now, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, is a perfect time for Americans of all stripes to reflect on the proper role of government. Who will deny that, for hundreds of thousands from New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, whether Republican, Democrat or independent, right now they are wishing they had had more government, not less, prior to the storm and in the days afterward?

Yes, it's true, government can be good for you.