If you want to give a name to the coming era in American politics, you could call it the Return of Government.
I think of the years between the time that John F. Kennedy told us to ask what we can do for our country and the aftermath of 9/11 when President Bush told us all to go shopping as modern historical bookends of sorts. Kennedy arrived at about the apex of people's faith in the power of the state to make lives better. Bush arrived at its nadir.
Now that pendulum has begun to swing back.
Kennedy benefited from a change in national consciousness ushered in by FDR. Thanks to Roosevelt, old bromides about the inerrancy of laissez-faire capitalism were tossed aside, replaced by a sense that government was needed to stand watch over the unbridled greed of markets. He moved the nation toward a more protective regulatory state and sought to spread prosperity with a progressive tax structure and the establishment of rights for working people.
With Americans feeling that government was on their side, Kennedy's inaugural ''ask what you can do'' exhortation was a call to a collective national will -- we are in this complex, dangerous world together and everyone has a sacrifice to make.
Bush, on the other hand, followed the line that his party had successfully sold since at least Ronald Reagan: shared sacrifice in the name of the common good is a socialist trick. Bush was so uninterested in demanding anything of us following the al-Qaida attack and invasion of Iraq that he pushed for tax cuts and refused to consider a draft to bring military ranks up to needed levels.
No new money, no new troops -- now let's start a pre-emptive war.
The legerdemain is that Bush indeed demanded sacrifice, but of people with no power to object: our military reservists who thought they were signing up as weekend soldiers and the generations who will be burdened by the crippling debts reaped by Bush's Iraq adventure and his millionaires' tax cuts.
Sen. John McCain has not yet gotten the memo that the country doesn't want more of the same. He essentially promises to maintain the status quo in Iraq and to renew the tax cuts. (He also promises to end deficit spending by the end of his first term -- a feat for which he offers no feasible plan. He thinks we're idiots.)
But the populace has figured out that when conservatives hold formal power they will denounce government in public while quietly using it in back rooms to enrich their friends in the military-industrial complex, on Wall Street and at the country club.
Government is coming back in part because it has never gone away. It was just cruelly manipulated to serve elite masters.
When the credit card industry wanted to make it harder for average folks to declare bankruptcy after they became ensnared in debts through the overextension of credit, Congress obliged.
When private health insurance companies wanted to profit on the Medicare program and new drug benefit, Congress opened that door.
And there are hundreds of similar examples of what has happened since the reins of government were handed to leaders more concerned with servicing corporate interests than the little guy's.
Americans' faith in government's ability to effectuate positive change is returning because we have nowhere else to turn. The antigovernment types have made a royal mess of things. But our nation's future stewardship will take personal sacrifice. Energy independence and universal health care are not free. And if we want to wage war, we have to pay for it, regardless of the fantasia of the current administration.
There was a time when government was expected to act in furtherance of the common good and was given the benefit of the doubt when sacrifice was called for. That time is coming back. It's the only viable option there is.
© 2008 Salt Lake Tribune