Friday, April 23, 2010


David Brooks thinks recent developments in our country are just following forces of nature:

...In the first year of the Obama administration, the Democrats, either wittingly or unwittingly, decided to put the big government-versus-small government debate at the center of American life.

Just as America was leaving the culture war and the war war, the Democrats thrust it back into the government war, only this time nastier and with higher stakes.

This war is like a social script. Once it was activated, everybody fell into their preassigned roles.

As government grew, the antigovernment right mobilized....

As government grew, many moderates and independents (not always the same thing) recoiled in alarm. In 2008, the country was evenly split on whether there should be bigger government with more services or smaller government with fewer services. Now, according to a Pew Research Center poll, the smaller government side has a 10-point edge....

As government has seemed more threatening, moderates and independents have also fled from the Democratic Party....

But the backlash against the Democrats wasn't inevitable. It happened because Democrats did (and are still doing) a godawful job of rebutting the anti-government arguments and making a case for intervention by the public sector. They haven't made the case, passionately and convincingly, that what they want to do isn't "socialism!!!" or that it's very much in the tradition of government interventions -- like, oh, say, the New Deal and Medicare -- that Americans have happily embraced.

Democrats who wind up in power are always too damn educated for their own good. They don't understand that they actually have to explain to people, clearly, forcefully, repeatedly, and perpetually, that Medicare and Social Security are government programs; or that our tax rates were much higher in the middle of the twentieth century than they are now, and somehow capitalism not only survived but thrived; or that government fixes the roads and fights the crime and delivers the disaster relief and educates the vast majority of our kids -- and we want it to do all that.

So sure, I was amused when the president, in his New York speech yesterday, mentioned a news story citing dire warnings from Wall Streeters about government intervention -- and then explained that the article was from 1933 and the legislation in question was a bill creating the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

But I'm not convinced that that got through to heartland America. I fear that a lot of heartlanders don't even think about the FDIC, and may not even be aware that it exists -- or, if they know, they may not know what it does, or whether it's public or private, or why it's been so important for nearly seventy years.

We know right-wing protesters have been waving signs demanding that the government keep its hands off Medicare. I'm sure even more of them are equally ignorant of the FDIC.

That's because the believers in government never explain why government is necessary. They don't develop and cultivate a narrative. And meanwhile, by contrast, the right has been lovingly crafting and disseminating a tale that fits every tax cut and every act of deregulation or privatization into a star-spangled myth of American freedom!!!

It would also be nice if modern-day government interventions worked better, and weren't watered down and compromised in an effort to placate the wealthy and powerful. In Obama's term we needed more help for the unemployed and for struggling mortgagees; we needed a better health care bill, and the financial reform bill isn't all it's cracked up to be, either.

But Democrats don't even try to explain why we need government programs in the first place. That's what makes the anti-government backlash from centrists inevitable. It isn't inevitable otherwise.

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