We laugh or pull our hair when we hear demands by obvious medicare recipients for “government to keep its hands off healthcare.” Don’t they know their healthcare is a government program? Dupes. Idiots! And then we dismiss further thought. We all know this slogan originated in some Republican PR hack’s darkly evil brain. But the resonance “government keep its hands off” obviously has among the elderly has driven me as a social scientist and lifelong educator to inquire more closely.
Join me in a little “reality based” inquiry below the fold.
Of course, some folks don’t know government runs medicare, but the vast majority, especially of the elderly actually on it, do. After inquiry among a few medicare recipients who want government to keep its hands off medicare, I found the demand resonates with so many because folks do not want “government” messing up medicare which they feel is already working fairly well. The demand is NOT that government NOT run healthcare; it is that “government” in the sense of legislators and "the political process" NOT fix what is NOT broken.
This slogan resonates because people don’t trust government. That’s not news. The Republicans have been drumming that theme since Ronald Reagan. But on the eve of the anniversary of government’s dramatic failures with Hurricane Katrina and the drowning of New Orleans, it behooves Democrats to recall just how dramatically power shifted in 2006 and 2008 as a direct result of 2005's very dramatic Republican failures to make government work when it was most needed and for those who most needed it. And we cannot forget the Democratic governor of LA did not come out of Katrina as much of a hero either. Nor can we forget the corruption in Democratic dominated New Orleans and LA that left the levy system and the city vulnerable to a Category III storm which it was supposed to be able to easily survive. Government failed, at least, one very important aspect of it did.
These old folks are terrified that just when they need help most, and precisely when they can do least about it is exactly when government will fail them. Every time a hurricane brews up, people, especially old people, remember. As far as many people can tell, it looks like government cannot get its act together, that Obama cannot get his own party to cooperate, and that “government” is back to its usual incompetence and squabbling. “Government isn’t working” they feel.
And this is not just a right wing view.
For many on the left, “government” failed to protect the US when it had clear warnings about "al Queda determined to attack inside America." Government failed to find the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. And usually we blame this on Republicans. But “government” also failed to regulate the banks and economy properly. It failed to manage housing and other economic bubbles. And government is failing to act on torture, close Guantanamo, re-regulate the banks, reform healthcare properly (with a public option) and, well, just read daily kos for a long list of what “government” under Democratic dominance is failing to do.
That is what “read the bill” demands also resonate with. Many people feel legislators aren’t doing their jobs, aren’t watching out for them, aren’t really in public office to serve the public. They (legislators) don’t know what they are doing. And they don't really care. And all that Republican corruption during the Bush era surely hasn’t helped build trust in legislators. But we also have to remember that House member Jefferson of LA and Gov Blogoyavich (sp?) of IL were very recent and very public corruption failures of Democrats.
Blame this on Republicans all we want, but the average person out there just hears all the screaming and discord and lack of action and cynical corruption and concludes, “government isn’t working”. And don’t think that when Democrats dominate the White House, the Senate and the House even more than the Republicans did in 2004 that all this controversy and apparent failure of Democrats to act on healthcare reform and so many other vital areas such as proper regulatory frameworks for banks and business and so much else will be without consequences. Many Americans are profoundly distrustful of business, of government, of the education system, of capitalism, of religious leadership, of you name it.
Of democracy, even? We are in a crisis of confidence, a systemic crisis of confidence we have not seen since the 1930s.
How can “government” recover some credibility? I hope the many thoughtful kos readers whose comments I have read for years have some creative ideas and add them below. But it seems to me that another “Yes we can” PR campaign can't address this crisis of confidence. I think we need the kind of deliberate, public investigations of government failure that accompanied Watergate. We need to publicly admit that “government” has failed, and by god, we are going to find out just exactly how it did and who is responsible.
And, we Democrats are going to fix it.
Not doing this, not doing this in the “government at work" way of a high profile public Congressional investigation is hurting, not helping, Democrats fix things. Trying to compromise and work with Republicans who preach distrust of government is not working.
Indeed, letting them get away with incompetence and abuse of government while in office, and continuing so many of their failed policies (DADT, DOMA, government secrecy, escalating war, etc) has directly contributed to this profound feeling that “government” cannot be trusted with anything so vital as “reform” of a program such as medicare that still works. We need to contrast Democratic determination to make sure government works for all with Republican manipulation of government for their own benefit. Or, at Thomas Frank details in "The Wrecking Crew", that Republicans have deliberately undermined democratic self-government while cynically proclaiming personal selfishness (called self-reliance by them) is the same as freedom. Freedom is won and exercised democratically and via self-governance (not self-reliance) by us all.
Politics as usual and the politics of compromise now on this vital point will result in the “usual” loss of seats in 2010 and a prolongation of the very inability of “government” to do anything right that makes the demand to “keep government hands off” resonate. Democrats need to get those investigations going, and hit hard on the real reason people distrust government, now.
We need to stop trying to sleep with Republican rattlesnakes who turn on us like Grassley nearly every time. Its time, past time, to name this growing cancer on democracy: distrust of government, of self government, for we are a democracy. Good government is possible. Good government is achievable. In a democracy, WE are a vital part of government. When government fails, WE must investigate and WE must determine who failed US and how they failed US.
Failure to investigate government failure is not prudence. Failure to do this is not bowing to political reality. Failure to do this is not turning the other cheek. We cannot look forward unless we look back and find out how we got on the wrong path. Failure to launch public inquiries on these very public failures is failure to govern well, and Democrats will pay for their governance failures in 2010 just as surely as Republicans did in 2006 and 2008.
So, do you think we should turn the other cheek and forget all the incompetence and corruption and abuse of office that sowed the seeds for this harvest of distrust of government? Or should "the government" investigate? Or am I missing something that better explains all this?