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Our government deserves better
Americans are cynical about their government. No wonder. It's being misused by demagogues, never more so than just now.
Mourn for the loss of confidence in government, and then act to change that reality. (Photo by Jonathan Simcoe on Unsplash)
Probably it began with a tiny red-white-and-blue “I LIKE IKE” button on my big brother’s bulletin board, which I quietly coveted. Or maybe it was watching Vice President Nixon as he campaigned by train through my Illinois hometown in 1960. He stood on the back platform of the train and waved while he was serenaded by the high school cheerleading squad. From my perch on the trunk of the family Buick, I waved back.
Really, I can’t remember what started it. But I’ve always been a politics nerd.
When I was 9 years old, I carefully wrote a letter to the President of the United States on a lined sheet of tablet paper, complaining about federal tax policy — specifically, the requirement that the franchisee at Mount Rushmore National Memorial pay cabaret tax because the college students who had summer jobs waiting on tables also sang with their guitars and ukuleles between delivering buffalo burgers and trout filets. I got a letter back from the Acting Deputy Director of the National Park Service. “We agree with you,” I recall reading — but that didn’t stop the tax collection, or let the music begin again.
In my 20s, I was for four years an aide to an obscure member of Congress, with a desk in a crowded office just across Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol. I consider that my stint in public service, though it was made with considerably less personal sacrifice than many young men of my generation made to a war in Southeast Asia that we were assured was defending our beloved democracy. I was proud to say that I was working for my country.
All this personal history is relevant only to underscore this point: Though I have learned well its limitations and failures, the result of my lifelong study and involvement in politics has made me believe in government. I know that smart public policy can change lives in this country and around the world. Case in point: the dramatic decline in childhood poverty when the child tax credit was hiked to offset families’ losses during the Covid pandemic. This, too: the humanitarian success of PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which has surely saved millions of lives in Africa since it was launched by President George W. Bush in 2003.
To be sure, my experience both inside government and during many more years as a journalist covering it also has given me a view of how government can be corrupted — not in the financial sense, usually, although that happens, But I mean corruption in the sense of politicians using their position mainly for ego gratification or as a platform for ideological argument, often with shamelessly little regard for the lives of the citizens they affect.
That behavior corrupts government. It’s reprehensible, and it is rampant just now. While Donald Trump is its most prominent practitioner, he is not a solo act.
Take that drop in U.S. child poverty that we might proudly cite. It’s gone. In fact, child poverty in our country doubled in 2022, despite a growing economy and historically low joblessness. Why? Because united Republican opposition in the U.S. Senate, with the crucial support of West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin, blocked an extension of the child tax credit. Manchin explained that he consigned five million children to poverty because their parents surely “would waste monthly child tax credit payments on drugs instead of providing for their children.” Have you ever heard more cruel stereotyping? The Republicans had a more pragmatic reason, obvious if only whispered: Lower poverty might help the political standing of a Democratic president.
The opponents’ public explanation was the program’s cost, estimated at $100 billion a year if the credit was made permanent. That’s a huge amount of money, no doubt. But it would have generated $1 trillion in societal benefits — in better earnings and improved health outcomes for generations ahead, as well as from reduced costs related to criminal justice. Can you imagine a business that would turn away from a 1,000 percent return on investment? Our government did.
Even more tragically, perhaps, the AIDS program that was arguably America’s greatest gift to the world in the 21st century is just about to disappear. PEPFAR’s charter must be renewed every five years, and it will expire on Oct. 1 if the Republicans who run the U.S. House carry out their threat to shut down the federal government unless President Joe Biden and the Democrats who lead the Senate agree to sharp spending cuts — that is, cuts larger than the two parties agreed upon, with handshakes and legislation, just four months ago. Why do politicians seem wounded when people say they can’t be trusted?
So let’s be clear: People will die and children will grow up in poverty because of the misuse of our government — because of politicians who want to pose as protectors of the public purse, or who can’t tolerate anything that might reflect well on someone from a different political background. This is how democracy can die: through criminal political malpractice.
These days, in fact, we are witnessing a catastrophic failure of some of government’s key players to engage in the goodwill efforts that are needed to find common ground where a foundation for progress may be laid.
Maybe I’ve been a foolish idealist all these decades, and it’s just time for somebody to knock the rose-colored glasses off my nose. Maybe American government is actually as bad as people have come to believe it is — since, after all, any government that can be so swayed by the likes of Matt Gaetz, Lauren Boebert and Tommy Tuberville probably isn’t worth my trouble anymore.
That’s what most people think anyway, so who am I to disagree? A new report from Pew Research Center finds that only 4 percent of U.S. adults think the political system is working very well, and just 16 percent say they trust the federal government at least most of the time — about the lowest level in my lifetime, I note from the researchers’ review. Nearly two-thirds of Americans say they always or often feel exhausted when they think about politics, and more than half say politics makes them angry. So, the researchers asked, does thinking of politics always, or even just often, make you feel hopeful? Only 10 percent of us say yes to that.
This anti-government attitude can be depressing, because in a democracy, we are the government. Its failure reflects badly on all of us. But American politicians have ways to pull the levers of power to skew government away from our wishes and toward their own preferred ends — usually for the benefit of their party — and the distorting power of Big Money has so infected the body politic over the past dozen years, especially, that it’s hard to argue these days that we live in a true democracy. There are just too many exceptions to the ideal of a direct pipeline of power from the people to the people’s government.
I grew up in a home with Republican parents. When I was 14, I was almost elected county vice-chair of Teenage Republicans, which would have identified me as a “star TAR,” as such young politicos were called. And many years ago I was the editor of a newspaper called, literally, The Republican. Later, as a political journalist, I worked hard to be a fair reporter of the views of both parties and to not let my personal judgments find their way into what I wrote. But whether your are a progressive or a conservative, you cannot help but be shaken by the direction of American politics over the past four decades or so. But you cannot tell me that the blame for this rising American cynicism about our government is shared by both major parties. This abjectly nihilistic political movement is a direct outgrowth of years of attacks on the validity of government itself by the right-wing demagogues who have taken over the party of Lincoln.
It's not only the politicians’ fault, certainly. The half-truths that drew millions of listeners to talk radio in the 1990s, making a star of Rush Limbaugh and his eagerly deceptive ilk, and the distortions of Fox News, which over time turned into outright lies aired nightly into millions of homes, have supported a view that government can’t be trusted — and have also pushed into prominence politicians who made that slander so.
So what should we do? The other day, as my wife and I were planning a trip to England to visit old friends, she reminded me that two of her grandparents were born in the United Kingdom, which could give her a quick path to claiming British citizenship. Now there’s a solution to the despair about American politics: give it up. Flee America, take up residence where you can take the dog for a walk across the moor and enjoy a meat pie and a pint at the pub.
But there’s no place that’s immune from political gamesmanship, and there’s no peace, ultimately, in surrender. The solution to democracy’s problems is, of course, a more responsive democracy: We need to work harder for the causes we care about, push politicians to honor the true public will, and demand higher standards of behavior from those we elect to serve us. We need to convince our fellow citizens that an investment of time and effort in supporting good candidates and sensible policies will eventually pay off. It’s more engagement, not retreat, that will restore our government’s efficacy and our citizens’ pride.
So I seem to not be cured yet of my affliction — which is, I suppose, a devotion to American democracy. Maybe you share that attachment. I hope so. And maybe, then, we can sustain each other during the days ahead when our government seems likely to fail, for a while. Let’s do what we can to make sure it is only a while, so that one day soon our government will deliver on the promise that underlies its existence.
A note to readers: The UPSTATE AMERICAN will not publish next week. We’ll be back on our usual publication cycle on Saturday, Oct. 7.
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IF YOU’RE A READER who wants to hear more of Rex Smith’s views, check www.wamc.org for his weekly on-air commentary aired by Northeast Public Radio. Here’s a link to the latest essay. And if your interest is specific to American media, you can download the podcast of The Media Project, the 30-minute nationally-syndicated discussion that Rex leads each week on current issues in journalism. It has been called “a half-hour of talk about finding and telling the truth.” It’s worth your time.
Thanks for reading, and for joining me on our common ground, this great America.