Shifting Ideas, Shifting Narrative: Is the Tide Turning Against the Right Wing Attack on Government?

Finally, after 30 years of the right-wing assault on government and public purpose, the outlines of a real debate on the role of government is emerging in this year's Presidential campaign.Candidate John McCain, despite occasional past breaks from conservative orthodoxy, remains predictably and defiantly stuck in failed free market, anti-government, supply side dogma.

Both Obama and Clinton, though, are speaking openly for the first time in many years about the need for public - that is, government - solutions to address the needs of the American people and the failures of the market to do so. That's what could make the current election, in historical terms, transformational. This year's campaign issues - health care, global warming, a declining middle class - are windows into a larger debate about the proper role of government in promoting shared prosperity - or responsible capitalism.

The debate about government's role in the economy goes back to the Founding Fathers. Since then, there have been key moments when popular movements embraced the notion that government should protect Americans from the swings of the business cycle and from the greed of big business. FDR's New Deal was, in many ways, a backlash against President Herbert Hoover's conservative ideological belief that market forces would eventually solve the nation's economic woes. The New Deal philosophy dominated American culture through the early 1970s. The 1960's brought us Medicare, Medicaid and civil rights laws. The 70s brought us landmark laws to protect consumers, workers (OSHA), and the environment (Clean Air Act).

But after Barry Goldwater's landslide defeat in 1964, the right-wing regrouped and systematically built the infrastructure to push back on popular support for government programs and regulations. Buoyed by ideological guru, economist Milton Friedman's intellectual assault on government management of the economy, the right challenged the very idea that government should be the nation's umpire, setting the ground rules for business to act responsibly and as the nation's investor in the common good and provider of social insurance. Along with corporate-sponsored foundations and think tanks, American corporations shed their earlier commitment to the post-war social contract and launched an all-sided effort to limit government regulation, lower taxes on corporations and the wealthy, weaken unions and dismantle public social insurance and safety net programs.

The right-wing then used their dominance over campaign contributions and conservative media institutions elected a generation of anti-government elected officials. With legislative power put them in position to seal the deal: ensuring public sector failure by defunding ('starving the beast') public services and institutions, deregulating and privatizing essential roles of government and putting agents of industry in control of regulatory agencies. A self-fulfilling prophecy.

Unfortunately, their success in shifting the political idea environment helped to silence a generation of progressive leaders, thinkers and organizers too afraid to articulate a clear vision of public purpose and the common good or talk about the new third rails of government, taxes and regulation of the free market.

The broad trajectory and success of the assault are illustrated most clearly by the bookends of two now-famous presidential quotes. As the assault on government was taking shape, Reagan launched the opening public salvo declaring the scariest words in the English language to be, "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help."

At the other end, Bill Clinton's declaration that the "era of big government is over" was the surrender speech of a lost war. The conservative narrative had won - throughout America, government solutions were off limits, badly needed revenues for education, health and infrastructure were out of reach and regulatory effectiveness weakened.

President Clinton did believe in public service and government as instrument of good. He expanded EITC, created AmeriCorps and the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) and increased taxes on the wealthy. But his fealty to unregulated free trade and deregulation of financial markets marked a genuine ideological embrace of free market dominance and denial of government's essential countervailing role in the economy.

The 2008 presidential race is clear evidence that the cone of silence is lifting and the narrative shifting. Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are talking openly about the need for more active government.

In a recent NY Times interview Sen. Clinton spoke openly about the need for active government role in the economy to balance the excesses of the market. "If you go back and look at our history, we were most successful when we had that balance between an effective, vigorous government and a dynamic, appropriately regulated market" Clinton said. "And we have systematically diminished the role and responsibility of our government, and we have watched our market become imbalanced."

She proclaimed: "I want to get back to the appropriate balance of power between government and market."

Clinton's remarks signal a return to the ideas of the great economic minds of the 20th century - the British economist John Maynard Keynes and his disciple, the American economist John Kenneth Galbraith - whose thinking shaped the New Deal and Great Society policy agenda. They recognized the need for countervailing power in market based economies. Now 30 some odd years after the right-wingers declared war on these ideas, the mainstream of the Democratic Party is speaking again of the limits of markets left alone.

Barack Obama too has articulated an agenda that make clear that the philosophical framework and place he comes from is all about the common good and reinvigorating a sense of national purpose. His calls for regulating the subprime industry, fair trade deals and investments in social and physical infrastructure represent a clear understanding of government's role vis a vis the market.

Senators Clinton and Obama are not alone. The American public never fully bought into the right-wing agenda, but, thanks to the excesses of the Bush years, Americans have been even more supportive of the need for government. One Republican pollster spoke recently of the difficulties for GOP presidential candidates in the midst of "a sea change in public attitudes towards government and what government should do for people." From the height of the Gingrich revolution in 1995 to today, attitudes flipped from a majority favoring limited government involvement to a majority favoring more government involvement in solving problems and meeting the needs of the people. A recent Pew Center poll found that Americans see a wider divide between the rich and everybody else and want government to help.

One indicator of shifting tides of American ideas is a walk through the popular book titles of the day. The 80's and early 90's saw re-releases of anti-government classics by Frederick Hayak and Milton Friedman. Today, there's a new crop of intellectually rigorous books by Robert Kuttner, Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, Naomi Klein, Jonathon Chait, Robert Reich and others that are boldly exposing the 'con job' that was supply side economics, the recklessness of unregulated capitalism, and the limits of the market in addressing the basic needs of the American people. And they are articulating an economic philosophy of the public good and shared prosperity, managed responsible capitalism. These are sophisticated and smart voices speaking about government's essential role in more than the hushed whispers of the 1980's and 1990's anti-government political environment.

A growing number of editorial writers have recently awoken from the nightmare of right-wing dogma. They, too, regularly comment on the need for strengthened and uncorrupted public institutions to address today's failures of unfettered markets and weakened regulatory apparatus to protect our food supply, the safety of consumer goods and a declining middle class. As do enlightened business leaders like Warren Buffet and George Soros speaking out for higher taxes to fund large scale public investment.

The current shift in public opinion and public conversation didn't come out of nowhere. Candidates are breaking from the conservative story line because of the political space opened up by movements and actions at the grassroots and in the workplaces. Activists for labor, housing, environmental, school, and other policies have won many victories, particularly at the local level, during the past two decades. These local successes didn't add up to a strong, coherent movement for change that could shape the national agenda around the role of government. But it appears that these ideas have now "trickled up," as more and more Americans experience the consequences of unregulated capitalism - for example, losing their jobs, their homes, their health insurance and facing the unprecedented challenges of global warming

Real momentum is building in a constellation of new organizations and new coalitions in regions across the country. They are beginning to shape and push for a new social contract anchored by active government acting on behalf of the public good. And a newly energized, and growing, labor movement has made clear the need for labor market bargaining power to close the economic gap and rebuild the middle class.

Despite the effectiveness of the right wing message machine, it turns out the truth survives in even the most hostile environments - the truth that the conservative mission to dismantle government and relieve big business of all responsibility for the damage and unmet needs they leave behind is actually harming people, leaving us less secure, less healthy and less certain about the survival of the planet.

The spate of disasters in 2007 alone has opened the door for new conversations and the beginning of a real tide pushing back on the phony argument and rapacious self-interest of the free marketeers. These are just some of the now widely accepted views of the impacts of right wing assault:

  • Bridge collapses and firestorms have exposed massive and dangerous lack of public investment in our infrastructure.
  • Poisoned food, lead in our children's toys and the subprime credit fiasco have resulted from the dismantling and industry capture of our regulatory apparatus.
  • Stagnant economic fortunes for the vast majority in the midst of obscene wealth for the few have shown the upward wealth distribution of supply-side tax policy, weakened unions and reduced labor market regulations like the minimum wage.
  • And now, finally, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has reported a scientific reality that even Bush and Exxon can't ignore.

Simply electing a new president will not undo thirty years of damage by the right wing free market con artists. The new president will be faced with a slightly weakened but still capable message machine ready to attack efforts to reestablish the balance between public purpose and private gain. It's one thing to call for universal health insurance that could limit the health insurance industry's dominance. It's another to withstand their millions spent on fear-mongering TV commercials and lobbying.

And they will be faced with the realities of continued distrust of government, painful choices to clean up Bush's folly in Iraq and a federal deficit that will seriously constrict our ability to invest in American security and prosperity.

It's not yet clear how a Clinton or Obama president will govern and just how far they will push back to rebalance the roles of the public institutions and private capital. That will depend entirely on the clarity and power of popular movements demanding government become an aggressive and effective force for public good. A new president driven by public values, then, has the political space to articulate a vision of balanced capitalism, of the public good and need for rules and public institutions to balance the private market.

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