Democrats Are Petrified of Defending Government—but They Need to Start

Republicans profit from Americans’ childish hatred of government—and Democrats lose every time by staying silent. Why they need to follow Chuck Schumer’s example and take on the issue.

12.04.14 10:45 AM ET

If you number yourself among my longer-suffering readers, you may know that one of the occasional hobbyhorses I ride for 800 words is my immense frustration that Democrats are terrified of defending government. Oh, some of them do sometimes. But mostly they defend ends, not means. That is: They defend this or that program or policy goal, but they don’t defend the vehicle that provides it, the federal government.

Now you are already sitting at your whetstone, sharpening your knife, ready to instruct me in all the reasons it would be preposterous for the Democrats to do this. I know the reasons already. But they’re wrong. Because look, folks: The Democrats are the party of government. It’s the basic reason a person is a Democrat in the first place—Democrats disagree about loads of things, but the one principle they all subscribe to is a belief that the federal government can and must intervene in the economic and social spheres to even things out. And the rejection of that belief is the basic reason a person is a Republican.

So government is the fundamental dividing line. And yet, for the past 30 years, what kind of debate about this have we had? We’ve had one side relentlessly attacking government as incompetent to evil, and the other side saying nothing, being too cowed to stand up and say that government is, and does, good. Elected officials don’t do it, and even the progressive political professionals don’t do it.

Think of this: Of all the dozens of groups out there that make up what we call the liberal infrastructure, the think thanks and interest-group nonprofits and so on, there is not a single entity whose goal is the defense of government. Given this, it’s perfectly reasonable that such large majorities think the government is awful, because you have the government haters telling them for three decades how awful government is and the government defenders saying nothing.

That is the real importance of Chuck Schumer’s speech last week. (There appears to be no full text available online, but you can watch it here). The central message has been crowded out to some extent by Schumer’s comments about how the president and the party should have concentrated on middle class economic matters before pursuing health-care reform, which other Democrats have criticized him for (and which he’s said before, incidentally). If all you know about the speech is that, then you might have a negative impression of it. I implore you to watch it, because it’s better than that.

Schumer has been careful over the years to keep his distance from his party’s liberals, although he’s also not a conservative; he’s a straddler. And he’s not an Elizabeth Warren-style populist. And the federal government is about as popular as syphilis. So it’s striking to hear Schumer say: “Together, Democrats must embrace government. It’s what we believe in; it’s what unites our party; and, most importantly; it’s the only thing that’s going to get the middle class going again. If we run away from government, downplay it, or act as if we are embarrassed by its role, people won’t vote for our pale version of the Republican view; they’ll vote for the real McCoy.”

It’s even more striking to hear someone like Schumer, known for relationships with Wall Street and traditionally one of the big banks’ best friends among Washington Democrats, argue that defending government means not just defending programs but using government’s regulatory and even prosecutorial power to check private-sector rapacity: “We must first prove that the era of big corporate influence over government is over. Big business, big banks, big oil—they may be allowed a seat at the table, but right now Americans feel that big special interests are buying the whole room and renting it out for profit. When government panders to these forces, and lobbyists and lawyers carve out ridiculous loopholes that amount to taxpayer-funded kickbacks to corporations, Americans feel that government is not working for them. When government fails to prosecute those who work in financial institutions (some of which were propped up or bailed out by the government) for what seems, on its face, blatant fraud, Americans feel that government is not working for them.”

That’s pretty amazing stuff coming from him. But it, too, like the Obamacare business, isn’t really his main point. The big idea in the speech is that Democrats have to come up with ways to show the middle class how the party will put the government to work in their behalf. I agree, but I would add that there’s another, prior job, which is simply to explain to middle-class people the dozens of ways in which the federal government already helps them and their communities but about which they have no idea.

This is what infuriates me, what the Democrats and the progressive political experts have done such a pathetic job at explaining to people. There are certain things that everyone knows the government takes the lead on—highways probably being the most obvious. But who cleans lakes and streams and rivers and makes them fishable and swimmable again? Who reduces smog, acid rain, lead poisoning? Who cleans up toxic waste sites? Who builds (or provides a lot of the money to build) senior citizen centers and community swimming pools and all manner of recreational facilities? Who sends millions of research and other dollars to universities and colleges across the country, from Harvard to small community colleges, pumping up local economies all over America? Who helps build convention centers and adjacent hotels so cities can attract convention business? And on and on and on and on and on. Most people go through their lives taking frequent advantage of these investments and amenities but never giving a second’s thought to the idea that the government made them possible. Most of them just think that lake cleaned itself somehow over the years.

And it’s not just that the average American doesn’t know. It’s that no one knows the exact extent. I once got an idea to do a big article choosing three small- to medium-size American cities more or less at random, just from different parts of the country, and trying to put a number on what the presence of the federal government in their communities meant to them. I started calling around. Oh, this will be impossible, I was told. No one keeps such numbers. You’d have to call every different agency of government, and even then many of them probably won’t have it broken down regionally.

Well, someone damn well should collect such numbers, and that someone should make damn well sure that the people of Ocala, Florida, and St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sioux Falls, Iowa, know about every dollar. This hatred of government we see in this country is sickeningly childish and hypocritical. The rot starts from the top—the appalling Republican members of Congress who voted against the 2009 stimulus and then had the audacity to go cut ribbons in their districts at venues given life because of that very stimulus bill they traduced as Satan’s handiwork.

But it extends down to the millions of people who accept and applaud the right-wing rhetoric even as they suck on the government tit every day of their lives in one way or another, either without knowing it or (worse) knowing it but denying that they do because they’ve stuffed their own heads full of some nonsense narrative about how tough and independent they are.

This is the fight. Government’s role in people’s lives. It’s a fight Democrats have been, for pretty much my whole adult lifetime, utterly petrified at the thought of having to take on. But they will never be the consensus-majority party again, as they were when I was born and when Chuck Schumer was a youngster, until they do take on this fight again, and win it.

Until Americans’ minds are changed about government, the domestic politics game will be played on fundamentally Republican turf. It’ll take time, a generation maybe, but it can happen. Schumer deserves a lot of credit for being the first who was willing to say it.