writing bio research bagatelle home

"Government" Issue

Geoff Nunberg

"Fresh Air" Commentary, August 11, 2009

    In sickness and in health, Republicans have always been better than Democrats at singing from the same hymnal, and right now they're all turned to the page that's headed "government takeover." The charge makes supporters of the Democrats' healthcare plans apoplectic. There's nothing remotely like that in the plans, they say -- it's like equating the provision of public toilets with a takeover of the nation's bathrooms. Even so, the supporters would as soon leave the word government out of the conversation, which is why they describe the proposed federally run insurance program as the "public option." Public is the word we use when we want to talk about government approvingly, by focusing on its beneficiaries -– as in public schools, public servants, public lands, and public works.
    That's how freighted the g-word has become. People will readily defend particular government programs. But when you listen to the ambient noise -- the radio talk shows, the late-night monologues, the "how many bureacrats does
it take to change a light bulb?" jokes -- it seems to be a truth universally acknowledged that government in the abstract is inefficient, self-serving, intrusive, and generally a terrible idea.
    The political scientist Samuel Huntington once said that distrust of government is as American as apple pie. But the suspicion waxes and wanes. In other eras the word government could inspire admiration and even awe. You think back to the 1930's, when millions of kids joined "Junior G-man" clubs -- g as in "government" -- pledging to become "secret operators" in "law and order patrols," in emulation of J. Edgar Hoovers heroically intrusive federal agents.
    Or recall the scene toward the end of John Ford's 1940 film adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath, with Henry Fonda. After their long and harrowing journey from Oklahoma to California, the Joad family finally arrives at a bright clean camp for migrants run by the Department of Agriculture, and an incredulous Tom Joad talks to the manager:

TOM: You aimin' to tell me the fellas that are runnin' the camp are jus' fellas that are campin' here?
CARETAKER: That's the way it is.
TOM: An' you say no cops?
CARETAKER: No cop can come in here without a warrant.
TOM: Why, I can't hardly believe it. Camp I was in before, they burned it out--the deputies an' some of them poolroom fellas.
CARETAKER: They don't get in here. Sometimes the boys patrol the fences, especially on dance nights.
TOM: You got dances, too?
CARETAKER: We have the best dances in the county every Saturday night.
TOM: Who runs this place?
CARETAKER: The Government.`
TOM: Well, why ain't they more like it?
CARETAKER: You find out, I can't.

    Of course there were plenty of people back then who weren't quite so grateful for the government's expanded role. But they hedged their objections by granting that government was a useful check on the excesses of the private sector. When Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie coined the phrase "big government" in 1940, it was as a play on the words "big business," and he conceded that government intervention had been necessary to correct what he called "corporate tyranny." Over the next thirty years, Republicans from Taft to Eisenhower to Nixon never warned of the risks of big government without acknowledging the need to restrain big business as well. Even Barry Goldwater framed politics as a tradeoff between big government and big business, though he came down solidly on the side of the latter.
    That rhetoric shifted abruptly in the 1970's, when public confidence in government dropped precipitously -- a phenomenon that people have blamed on everything from Vietnam and Watergate to declining party loyalty to negative campaigning and media sensationalism. That ushered in the modern age of misarchism (a nice word for hatred of government): by the 1976 election, Ford and Carter were vying to see who could denounce  the bloated Federal bureaucracy more energetically.
    But it was Ronald Reagan who decisively transformed the language of political debate. Earlier Republicans had opposed big government because it was big; Reagan opposed it because it was government. And he drove his views home with jaunty aphorisms. "A government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we'll ever see on this earth." "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, "I'm from the government and I'm here to help." (Actually, the Democrat Ed Muskie was the first politician to use that line, but Reagan had a way of making these things his own.)
    But Reagan's real contribution was to shrink the cast of characters to a simple opposition between government and “the people.” Big business was eliminated from the political landscape, absorbed into "the market," where everyone was free to shop around for the ripest tomatoes. You could no longer ask the question, "Whose side is government on?" -- government simply was the other side.
    Within a decade, that had became the received picture, not just for the Gingrich Republicans, but for the New Democrats who were trying to neutalize the Republicans' rhetorical advantages, albeit with mixed success. In 1996 Bill Clinton famously proclaimed in his State of the Union speech that "the era of big government is over." The next day the conservative Weekly Standard ran its coverage of the speech under the headline, "We Win!"
    You can hear the echoes of Reagan's voice when opponents of the health-care plans raise the specter of government bureacrats interfering with the sanctity of the doctor-patient relationship, cropping the insurance companies out of the frame. That's no doubt what led President Obama a few weeks ago to start talking about "insurance reform" rather than "health-care" reform, by way of refocussing attention on the insurance companies and HMO's.
    Nobody expects Americans to become as enthusiastic about government as they were in the New Deal era -- just as well, since that tends to go along with desperate times. But with the revival of populist rhetoric in the bailout era, people may return to talking about government with a resigned acceptance, the way Nelson Rockefeller did almost fifty years ago: "Let's face it," he said, "big government is here to stay, like big business. This is a big country, after all."

1.Hoover enjoyed recounting that the name was coined when the feds cornered George Machine Gun Kelly in Memphis in 1933 and he yelled "Don't shoot, G-men, don't shoot." The story was a pure concotion (what Kelly really said was "I've been waiting all night for you") but it suggested how hardened criminals quailed before Hoover's special agents.

Copyright © 2009 Geoffrey Nunberg All rights reserved.