Monday, September 22, 2008

American Anti-Government Sentiment and False Choices

I work with many Europeans and Canadians who follow U.S. politics, particularly this election, and are positively flummoxed by the kind of anti-government rhetoric that we hear from conservatives.

Case in point - one of my co-workers from the the United Kingdom came into my office, flabbergasted by a quote he read by Ronald Reagan. The quote was "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." From his perspective, this is an insane statement. He is thinking of government in terms of what it does. He is thinking of education, health care, roads, laws and protection for the most vulnerable. He is thinking of governance.

But that, oft cited, Reagan quote is only the beginning of what he said. The rest of that quote from his 1981 inaugural address is:

From time to time we've been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. Well, if no one among us is capable of governing himself,then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?
Far be it for me to agree with Ronald Reagan on anything, but the man had a point. And it is a point that resonates with many, perhaps most, Americans. The majority of us are escapees from bad governments. Quakers and Puritans came escaping religious prosecution by their governments. Mexicans came fleeing from the Mexican Revolution and the parade of bad governments that came with it. German Jews fled the Third Reich and Soviet Jews fled Stalin. Nicaraguans, Guatemalans, Salvadorans, Argentinians, and Chileans fled the dirty wars. Haitians fled Papa Doc and Baby Doc.

More than a few of these people fled as disillusioned former supporters. Some Cuban refugees had been supporters of Castro and the Communist party, but were disillusioned by the poverty and political persecution that came later. Jews fleeing Russia were often former supporters of the revolution who came to find out that a dictatorship of the proletariat was worse than the aristocracy had been.

And then there are the people who found themselves under the rule of the United States government against their will. For Native Americans and African Americans, the United States government has historically been the mechanism by which they were oppressed, not an institution that protected them from harm. All of which is to say that we Americans come by our suspicion of government, and government power, honestly.

The problem with conservative rhetoric isn't that it creates suspicion where there is no cause for it. There is plenty of cause for suspicion. If the conservatives truly wanted to limit the power of government representatives, I might actually support them. The problem with conservatives (and with anyone else who obtains power) is that they never limit their own power, once they have it. What we have ended up with is the worst possible outcome - a group of "representatives" abusing their enormous power and privilege, without even a modicum of the governance we need.

Americans don't want their lives to be dictated to them. Conservatives have laid out the choice as being between a powerful government that takes your money and tells you what do, and a (theoretically) small government that tells you to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Those are false choices, and not just because conservatives have consistently enlarged government.

The other choice is a real democracy, a direct democracy, one in which we all decide for ourselves how our money is spent, and one which understands that it is possible to have governance without relinquishing our power to people who will only abuse it. It requires us to actually invest ourselves in learning about and trying to solve the problems we face. It requires a commitment to work with and try to understand people who think differently. It requires people to do more than (maybe) vote once a year in an election between Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

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