Growing up in the shadow of the Kennedy administration, I watched in awe as people half a generation older headed to the exotic venues of the Peace Corps or the even more alluring (to me) Washington, D.C. We understood government then to be an agent of the common good, the ultimate problem-solver. Naive? Sure, but still, years later, on a visit to the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, I was riveted by a simple list, printed on the walls of an alcove off the main exhibit hallway, of laws that LBJ signed: those dealing with civil rights, voting rights, fair housing, education, mass transit, the environment; those establishing Medicare, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities. Defining mid-century America, this body of laws reflected the country’s highest aspirations for itself.
The challenge now is to recapture that belief in government as a force for good, as worthy of our attention and our talents, as capable of motivating and inspiring. It’s been forty years since Ronald Reagan first uttered his reliable laugh line: “The most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’” An entire generation has come of age since Bill Clinton declared, in his 1996 State of the Union address, that “the era of big government is over.”
Government not as the solution, but as the problem, as an obstacle to be dispensed with if at all possible—this is the image that has seeped into our national DNA. It shadowed the Obama administration and has been exploited with tragic results by Donald Trump. It will defeat renewed efforts at progressive change unless President Biden (words to wish for) can tap into a different vision and remind people—or instruct them, if they have no personal memory—of a time when we had a secretary of education who believed in public education, a housing secretary who believed in public housing, environmental officials who didn’t owe allegiance to the oil and gas industries, a bureaucrat charged with the welfare of unaccompanied-minor immigrants who didn’t see his highest mission as preventing girls from terminating their crisis pregnancies. No wonder young people are cynical about government; how could they not be? For a start, we need to reclaim the notion that the job of those on the public payroll is to carry out their agency’s mission, not subvert it.
This is a task bigger than the next president’s alone. We need a Supreme Court that envisions the Constitution as Ruth Bader Ginsburg envisioned it, as an engine of social progress instead of as a roadblock to structural reform. We have a Court today that divides rather than unites in common purpose; that has reinterpreted the First Amendment as a potent tool of deregulation; that devises off-ramps from civil society for those with religious objections to following the nondiscrimination principles intended to bind us all. We are overdue for a public conversation about what the Constitution is for and whose interests it serves. The left has ceded constitutional discourse to the right for so long that conservatives meet little resistance when they claim to be keepers of the “original meaning.”
As the air rings with the call for racial justice, the current moment waits to be seized. Recognition has grown even in red states, according to some recent polls, that it was not nature but government failure that magnified the harms of the coronavirus pandemic. A team of Yale researchers in the rural West in late summer found a sudden interest in the long-disdained concept of a government safety net. “The pandemic has created an opening—among rural residents—for large-scale social and economic reforms,” the lead researcher reported. We need to find the way to institutionalize that insight before the memory fades, to reclaim government as an affirmative communal good, not as a burden to be shed. The momentum is there, waiting to be harnessed: people in Missouri went to the polls this summer and, in defiance of the state’s Republican establishment, voted to extend Medicaid to 200,000 fellow Missourians.
In this forum four years ago, Marilynne Robinson wrote, “We cannot sustain our civilization on cynicism and resentment.” Indeed, cynicism about government has been conservatives’ friend. We need to provide the reason for shaking off its bindings. Speaking on Michelle Obama’s podcast this summer, Barack Obama observed that “the danger for this generation is that they have become too deeply cynical in government.” Or as he might have said—as, in fact, candidate Obama did say back in 2008—“We are the change we seek.”