We are all familiar with the current practice of politicians bashing government as too large, too expensive and too unresponsive. In fact, ever since the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s, demonizing government has been a standard procedure to score points with the electorate. Government officials, both Democrats as well as Republicans, attempt to win elections by running away from the very organization they are attempting to join. Even President Clinton was forced to preempt this issue in his 1992 presidential bid, calling for a reduction in government size and dramatic welfare reform.
The perception of government as a massive, unresponsive, wasteful leviathan has its origins in President Reagan’s platform of 1980. Reagan’s inaugural address first introduced the refrain that has been the mantra of aspiring politicos for the last 20 years: “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
Today this sentiment seems to be alive and thriving, and it is hard to blame Americans for harboring these views. As of Feb. 17, the deficit of the federal government topped a record $7 trillion and yet, despite having a deficit so large that its figure has 12 zeros, government over the last few years has accomplished just that in terms of fulfilling obligations to its citizenry: zero. Over 43 million Americans are still without healthcare coverage and over two million Americans are still without work.
Reagan was partially correct in his first inaugural: a wasteful, unresponsive government is partially to blame for today’s problems. However, I would amend Reagan’s argument. It is not government that is the problem; it is bad government that causes the difficulties. In fact, government of the time period from the New Deal up until prior to the Reagan Revolution had a stellar track record of responding to citizens’ demands and lifting up Americans in need of aid. Big government isn’t always the problem. In fact, it often takes big government to effect great positive change.
Multiple government initiatives taken between the 1930s and 1990s were incredibly bold and had a genuine impact in improving the lives of millions of Americans. New Deal programs, such as the Civilian Conservation Corps as well as the Works Progress Administration put millions back to work during the Great Depression, while Social Security continues to provide a safety net for retirees. Great Society initiatives taken under the Johnson Administration dramatically improved the lives of the impoverished and elderly and took great strides against institutionalized racism, while Medicare and Medicaid ensure healthcare coverage for the elderly and poor. Decades later, the earned-income tax credit under President Clinton reduced the number of individuals living below the poverty line by 4.8 million, including 2.6 million children.
The two remaining Democratic candidates represent a heartening alternative to the established doctrine of demonizing government. Both Senators Kerry and Edwards have expressed support for sweeping legislation that would dramatically increase the number of Americans who have healthcare coverage, a position first proposed on the Democratic Party platform of 1948. In addition to healthcare, both candidates have advocated massive increases in funding toward the construction of new schools and the training and hiring of better teachers. The senators have also outlined similar proposals to make a college education affordable to less fortunate Americans as well as ways to clean up the environment and curb polluting industrial practices.
The 2004 presidential election represents a great opportunity for Americans to rebuke the tenets of the Reagan Revolution. History shows that government is a powerful entity, capable of placing the American Dream within reach of millions of citizens while making the United States a stronger nation. The past illustrates that government can be a place where people can come together, decisions can be made to benefit all, and nobody gets left behind. This year’s Democratic candidates offer a clear alternative and a promising hope for a return to a government steeped in the traditions of the New Deal, Great Society, and progressive fiscal policy rather than a government of rising deficits and non-responsiveness. We must return to that era when government was not a problem but a solution — a force of progressive ingenuity — so that all Americans can once again partake in the rewards of American democracy.
Jonathan Menitove is a freshman in Ezra Stiles College.