Price we pay for anti-govern­ment rhetoric

Baltimore Sun - - MARYLAND - Dan Ro­dricks dro­dricks@balt­

Iknew a group of men, bril­liant sci­en­tists and as­tute at­tor­neys, who took jobs with the fed­eral govern­ment to serve their coun­try and make it a bet­ter place. They were col­lege grad­u­ates of the 1960s who had heard John F. Kennedy’s call to pub­lic ser­vice — “Ask not what your coun­try can do for you, ask what you can do for your coun­try” — and who a decade later took JFK’s chal­lenge into govern­ment jobs in food safety and en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion.

But within two decades, Ron­ald Rea­gan as­cended to the pres­i­dency with a very dif­fer­ent mes­sage: to re­duce govern­ment’s scope and reg­u­la­tory power. As he once put it, “I’ve al­ways felt the nine most ter­ri­fy­ing words in the English lan­guage are: ‘I’m from the govern­ment, and I’m here to help.’ ”

The sci­en­tists and at­tor­neys, who had found per­sonal ful­fill­ment in con­duct­ing re­search and en­forc­ing fed­eral laws to pro­tect the en­vi­ron­ment and hu­man health, soon left govern­ment ser­vice. They heard in Rea­gan the sound of re­treat from the pro­gres­sive ef­forts that had brought ad­vances in the qual­ity of life for mil­lions of Amer­i­cans.

Since even be­fore Franklin Roo­sevelt and the New Deal, Congress had en­acted laws to keep chil­dren out of the work­place, to pro­tect the na­tion’s wa­ter­ways and its air, to make mo­tor ve­hi­cles safer, to keep watch over fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions, to ad­vance vot­ing rights, to end racial dis­crim­i­na­tion in pub­lic places, to keep Amer­i­cans from starv­ing.

What some con­demned as the ex­pen­sive growth of bu­reau­cracy and govern­ment over­reach, oth­ers saw as vig­i­lance nec­es­sary for a bet­ter coun­try.

But dur­ing the years since Rea­gan, Ameri- cans have come of age hear­ing that govern­ment is too big and too pow­er­ful, that it has stran­gled com­merce and in­di­vid­ual free­dom, that it is gen­er­ally in­com­pe­tent or cor­rupt, or some com­bi­na­tion of all of that.

And if you went to work for the govern­ment, you must have been ill-equipped for the pri­vate sec­tor, un­able to com­pete in the “real world.” (I al­ways felt sorry for school teach­ers who might have been lis­ten­ing when a cer­tain lo­cal talk ra­dio host crit­i­cized them with sar­cas­tic broad­sides, rel­ish­ing a Ge­orge Bernard Shaw line: “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.”)

I’ve known a lot of peo­ple who worked for tax­pay­ers over the years, from the lo­cal plan­ning com­mis­sion to the pub­lic de­fender’s of­fice — peo­ple who be­lieved in what they were do­ing, de­spite hear­ing steady, antigov­ern­ment ha­rangues.

That mes­sage has been re­peated, in dif­fer­ent forms, through­out Don­ald Trump’s cam­paign for pres­i­dent.

It is most pro­nounced in his out­ra­geous claims that the com­ing elec­tion is rigged. In mak­ing that base­less as­ser­tion, Trump fur­ther de­grades the pub­lic’s con­fi­dence in govern­ment, be­cause it is govern­ment, in the form of state and lo­cal boards, that con­duct the Novem­ber elec­tion in ac­cor­dance with law.

And Trump’s re­peated use of the word “disas­ter” to de­scribe al­most ev­ery­thing the govern­ment does sup­ports his nar­ra­tive of a coun­try in col­lapse. This is toxic talk. What I’m con­cerned about is some­thing all Amer­i­cans should be con­cerned about, and that’s the ef­fect of nearly four decades of anti-govern­ment rhetoric have had on our abil­ity to re­cruit good peo­ple into pub­lic ser­vice, and that in­cludes elected of­fice.

When Trump and his sur­ro­gates at­tack the Wash­ing­ton es­tab­lish­ment, their tar­gets are the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion and what they see as its likely con­tin­u­a­tion with the elec­tion of Hil­lary Clin­ton.

Of course, Pres­i­dent Barack Obama is en­joy­ing pretty high ap­proval rat­ings as he pre­pares to leave of­fice. So, no sur­prise, Trump and his talk­ing-head sup­port­ers are out of step.

When most Amer­i­cans ex­press dis­ap­proval of the “Wash­ing­ton es­tab­lish­ment,” they’re think­ing about some­thing else. They’re think­ing about the super-par­ti­san, do-noth­ing Congress, con­trolled by just-say-no Repub­li­cans who have worked against the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion 24/7 for go­ing on eight years.

Ex­am­ple: Repub­li­cans crit­i­cize the Af­ford­able Care Act, and they seem down­right glee­ful with pre­dic­tions of Oba­macare’s im­pend­ing melt­down. But they’ve been un­will­ing to work with Democrats to im­prove it. Oba­macare’s in­her­ent prob­lems, left to fes­ter, fur­ther erode pub­lic con­fi­dence in the govern­ment. That’s no way to run a coun­try.

While Rea­gan gets credit for launch­ing the anti-govern­ment age in Amer­ica, he had re­in­force­ments — the right-wing me­dia, the tea party — to sec­ond his mes­sage that govern­ment is too large, too costly, too clumsy.

And the Democrats, in­clud­ing Obama and Clin­ton, have not coun­tered this mes­sage with re­sound­ing, re­peated and in­spired ap­peals to young peo­ple to con­sider pub­lic ser­vice. And I mean all kinds of ser­vice — civil­ian, mil­i­tary, law en­force­ment. And not just for the pay and pen­sion; for the greater good. Young Amer­i­cans need to hear that again.

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