Speaking to representatives of Future Farmers of America in July 1988, President Ronald Reagan took a moment to remind his listeners of the ten most dangerous words in the English language: “Hi, I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.”
Decades earlier, near the beginning of his political career, Reagan recorded a speech on a vinyl LP excoriating socialized medicine for what he claimed as the gradualist aim of controlling citizens’ lives. He went so far as to predict that the government would end up coercing doctors as to where they could or couldn’t practice medicine. Even though Reagan called it “one of the traditional methods of imposing statism,” he does not mention a single example of when a government eventually trampled upon the freedoms of its citizens.
Like other Cold War red-baiting alarmists, Reagan fueled the hysteria of the U.S. succumbing to Stalinist repression; also doing his share to popularize the projection of inhuman, monolithic qualities onto government, an impulse that’s wildly popular still today. Perhaps because of these uncertain times people are apt to carry heaps of anxiety and need somewhere or something to unload upon. Given the jobs crisis, crumbling infrastructure and America’s loss of prestige world-wide, these days our government is a fish-in-a-barrel shot.
Capitalizing on the anti-government appeal, a significant number of Republicans running for office will season their campaigns with small government or limited government slogans. Apart from promises about lower taxes, stripping the social safety net or uncaging the “free” market, there aren’t many specifics about how less government would improve the quality of life for the whole republic.
The problems our republic faces have little or nothing to do with big government or small government. What afflicts our nation’s politics is an influence gap that continually thwarts the will of voters. The gap owes much to the 40 percent of eligible voters who don’t vote in each election, as well as a general unwillingness of voters to build a consensus to solve our most pressing problems. Into said gap, moneyed interests (petroleum, financial services and the defense industry, to name a few) have driven their Hummer-sized policy agendas (war and industry deregulation); an effort that has looted not only the federal budget, but which has also skimmed off the value of middle class labor: all in service to the endless gain of share holders, industry captains and their direct reports.
And all the while their right wing water carriers work to spread antipathy and mistrust between voters and government. They have employed all manner of fear-mongering slogans about tyranny and threats to the so-called free market. Conjuring a despotic straw man, they urge that he stands at the threshold of seizing your rifles and relocating you to FEMA-operated death camps. Such apocalyptic talk has had the effect of eroding the bond of accountability between the government and citizens; what should have prevented much of the public and private sector malfeasance we’ve seen over the last 30 years.
What voters too often forget or fail to understand is the influence they wield when working in concert. If the 2008 economic meltdown has anything to teach us, it must be how interlinked or mutually dependent our occupational and financial destinies are. Why not accept and utilize that interdependence toward its greatest electoral advantage? As the group granting the “consent of the governed” we insult the purpose of our republic by continuing to roll over in deference to wealthy interests.