8/18/09

Is Government 'Us' or is It 'Them'?

As I've mentioned to my friends at Lucianne.com, the Republican Party has become essentially a rightist phenomenon in American politics..... Rightist as in Fascist. There are many reasons for this which I have enumerated over and over again.... in fact the Republicans have become predictable and boring, because they no longer have any sense of pragmatism.... all arguments are ideologically rooted and as a minority, basically obstructionist. Health Care issues for example are ideologically rooted in the idea that if something isn't making a big fat profit for corporations, it shouldn't be happening. See also how quickly it was noted by the Republicans that if Health Care Reform were blocked it would be Obama's "Waterloo"..... that is what it's all about for them. Ideology and partisan obstructionism. Never mind that Americans are paying top dollar for a crazy quilt of coporate insurance "governments" that place profit-taking over all else and don't even provide an opportunity to cover all of America's citizens. Business is not about the common good, and if business doesn't provide, then it isn't needed. For the Republican, it is as simple as that. The great individualists, the great advocates of property rights and personal liberty have no sense of social responsiblity. And they just don't want to pay their taxes.

So where did all this Republican "fear of Government" come from? It really is quite simple. Republicans want nothing to stand in the way of profit making..... not environment..... not efficiency..... not morals, ethics or any other human consideration other than money-making. Government is a big threat.... because government for-and-by-the-people serves ALL the people and REGULATES the private sector.

However, there is an historical perspective to be taken on this issue as well, and Joseph J. Ellis does a nice job of discussing this historic perspective in The Capital Times of Madison Wisconson.

Is government 'us' or is it 'them'?
Joseph J. Ellis
The Capital Times, Madison Wisconson

8/17/2009 7:21 am

From the very beginning of our national history, Americans have been arguing about the proper role of government. Put succinctly, the dispute is between those who regard government as "them" and those who see it as "us."

Our two founding documents embody the tension in its classical form. The Declaration of Independence locates sovereignty in the individual citizen, who possesses the rights of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," as Thomas Jefferson so lyrically put it, and the power of government is described as an alien force that must be put on the permanent defensive.

The Constitution enshrines "the people" as the sovereign agent, with a Bill of Rights that defines a protected region where government cannot intrude, but otherwise identifies a collective interest best managed by a federal government empowered to make decisions for the society as a whole.

All of U.S. political history can be understood as a perpetual debate between these two competing perspectives, symbolized at the start in the clash between Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.

The Jeffersonian position, with its emphasis on a minimalist government, prevailed throughout the 19th century and imprinted itself on the DNA of American culture as a quasi-sacred political creed.

By the start of the 20th century, as the United States became a more densely populated, ethnically diverse society with an industrial economy dominated by large corporations, the Jeffersonian perspective grew increasingly anachronistic. It became abundantly clear that government power was necessary to regulate the swoonish swings of the marketplace, provide a safety net for poor and elderly citizens, and protect the environment. Thus the Federal Reserve Board, Social Security, Medicare and the Environmental Protection Agency.

But despite these projections of the Hamiltonian ethos, which presumes that there is a collective public interest that only government can serve, the Jeffersonian ethos remains a potent force and not just in the right wing of the Republican Party. It colors the conversation about all the major domestic problems facing the Obama administration in ways that stigmatize as socialistic what we might ironically describe as the self-evident solutions.

In the health care debate, for example, there is a national consensus that we have a broken and bloated system. But instead of replacing it with the kind of single-payer government-run system adopted by most of the developed countries on the planet, that option is ruled out of order at the start of the debate. As a result, the best we can hope for is modest reform of an inherently flawed and expensive system.

To take another example, in the ongoing banking crisis, the removal of government regulations permitted major banks to assume unconscionable amounts of debt, much of it in the form of toxic investments that still remain on the books. It has been obvious that the banks needed to be temporarily nationalized to force them to purge bad debts from their portfolios.

But fear that the stock market would interpret this course as creeping socialism has prevented such straightforward action. So we are still waiting for many of the same self-described financial wizards who created our fiscal mess to get us the rest of the way out of it.

Our response to global warming is likely to meet the same fate. If there was ever a problem that demanded a coherent public response by government in the "us" mode, the threat to life on Earth as we know it would seem to be it. But "cap-and-trade" legislation, designed to reduce carbon in the atmosphere through government-created emission "allowances" that can be traded for money, is currently on life support in Congress, another victim of the deep-seated aversion to Washington's intrusion in the marketplace.

For much of our history, the Jeffersonian hostility to an energetic federal government served us well. But with the end of the frontier and the shift from an agrarian to an industrial economy, the expanding role of government in protecting and assuring our "life, liberty and pursuit of happiness" has become utterly essential.

All the major problems now befuddling us -- the destructive excesses of finance capitalism, a profit-based health-care system, an increasingly contaminated atmosphere -- are only soluble if we regard government as the chosen representative of our collective interests as a people and a nation.

No less an American hero than George Washington put it rather defiantly in 1785: "We are either a united people, or we are not. If the former, let us, in all matters of general concern act as a nation. ... If we are not, let us no longer act a farce by pretending it."

And even Jefferson acknowledged that his anti-government vision would become irrelevant once we ceased being an agricultural society and that future generations -- meaning us -- would at some point need to throw off what he called "the dead hand of the past."
Joseph Ellis is the author of "American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies in the Founding of the Republic." This column appeared first in the Los Angeles Times.