We are in the midst of a major ideological battle. If progressives win, we'll have more jobs, better schools, and the first real steps toward a sustainable economy in our history. Conservatives in Congress don't want this to happen. Why? Is it that they hate Americans and want us to suffer? Maybe not. But they definitely don't want Americans to experience a government that works. This would undermine decades of propaganda summed up in Reagan's famous line, "Government is the problem!"
This has to do with worldviews and modes of thought, something I've studied extensively in recent years. Conservatives are trying to advance their "common sense" just as they have done with gusto since establishing their network of think tanks and media outlets in the mid-70's. What is their common sense? Simple:
The world is filled with individuals whose worth is determined solely by their ability to be disciplined and work hard. These individuals go out into the world and compete for just rewards if they prove themselves stronger and more capable than their competitors. By implication, anyone who does not win in this "free market" of competition is lazy and weak. Such people deserve their lot in life. And, of course, this natural order only works without disruption by a nanny state (the government) that gives hand outs to the undeserving.
Margaret Thatcher famously articulated this perspective when she declared that "there is no such thing as society," making explicit the claim that the world is filled with individuals. Unfortunately for conservative thinkers, their ideas don't hold up very well in practice. A few generations back they had the opportunity to prove themselves by deregulating markets and removing caps on the "rewards" of competition. The result: the Great Depression. Later, they got their hands on the reigns again. Their laissez-fair approach to market capitalism resulted in a Savings and Loan scandal. More recently, when conservatives controlled all three branches of government, we were delivered to our current desperate state of economic collapse.
The challenge we face now is that conservatives are very good at hiding this history from the public. They do it by controlling the messages of the mainstream media. And they are using the full girth of their power now to set the discourse around Obama's stimulus package. Not to serve the public, but to protect their ideology from the truth of its devastation.
Conservative Lie #1: It's not the economy their protecting. It's the ideology.
Republicans in Congress will claim that they are working to improve the stimulus plan in order to bolster the economy. This claim is false. The truth is that they are grasping at straws in a time when most Americans clearly see the need for government intervention. They know that a successful economic recovery plan that comes from the government will undermine public endorsement of their ideology. They don't want this to happen.
Their tactic is not simply "politics as usual," a code phrase for the meme that government cannot be trusted (conservative ideology again!). It is part of what my former colleague George Lakoff and I call cognitive policy. By cognitive policy we mean strategies for getting high-level ideas-values, frames and principles-to dominate public discourse and shape public understanding so that future material policies will be natural and win public support with ease. Conservatives want Americans to think like they do. And they're willing to let cities drown, as we saw with Katrina, to demonstrate their idea that government doesn't work.
Conservative Lie #2: Government isn't bad. Conservative government is bad.
They'll claim that "government is the problem" and point to failures that happened on their watch. Of course, this sleight-of-hand maneuver only works if people don't remember our history. The truth is that conservatives intend for government to fail. And they'll do whatever it takes to insure that it does. An example George and I laid out in a past article, Why Voters Aren't Motivated by a Laundry List of Positions on Issues, was the covert policy of undermining public education so that it could be privatized:
For example, take No Child Left Behind. Its stated purpose is to improve public education, but its covert purpose has been to undermine it so that public schools can be replaced by charter schools, private schools, and religious schools. This would increase conservative control over what is taught and further inculcate conservative ideas. It would institute a two-tier educational system to maintain and reproduce the two-tier economic system in the country, so that children of the elite can get an elite education subsidized by the public through vouchers, while children of the uneducated poor remain educated just enough to continue to provide a source of cheap unskilled or low-skilled labor. This agenda is hidden, but it is justified and advanced via cognitive policy.
This is where progressives have our work cut out for us. Not only do we need to promote policies that reflect our values. Unlike conservatives, we have the additional challenge of making sure government programs work! We have to be sure that quality jobs are created that deliver a living wage. We have to provide for the health security of citizens to keep our communities safe from the ravages of disease. We have to nurture the minds of our children to be sure they are prepared for the challenges that lay ahead. And we have to transcend outdated relationships with Old World powers, like those in the Middle East, by generating local, clean energy in our own cities and towns.
Conservative Lie #3: They're not against the stimulus plan. They're against the function of government itself.
The narrow reporting on current Congressional politicking would lead one to believe that conservatives simply want a different bill to be passed. By now it should be clear that this just isn't the case. The truth is that conservatives want to be sure Obama and his progressive colleagues at all levels of government are not able to do their jobs. Imagine what would happen if Obama succeeded at delivering money to state and city officials to build mass transit, generate renewable energy, and provide affordable health care to the populace. This would be the fulfillment of government's moral mission - to protect and empower our citizens.
Conservatives will do everything they can to stand in the way of this progress. They are doing more than obstructing a vital infusion of resources to save our economy. That would be sin enough to drive them from public office if their agenda were widely know. The truth is much more disturbing. They are obstructing the capacity of people to come together and solve our problems through the one mechanism that makes this possible - a functioning government.