Is the Government Our Enemy?
Ronald Reagan's conservatism insisted that the government is the enemy of the ordinary citizen. When the government makes its appearance you had better watch out. Contemporary conservatives still hope to reduce the scope of government involvement in the lives of ordinary citizens. This is an attractive position. Everyone has stories of being frustrated by the demands of official bureaucracies. There is very little any citizen can do even with his or her private property without the intensely annoying need to ask permission from some government bureau.
But government does not only regulate where we often feel regulation to be unnecessary or even destructive – destructive of citizen initiative and self-determination - government also supports significant portions of the population. In some parts of the country such as coal country in Kentucky, more than half the population is supported by government payments for food, for healthcare, for housing. (NYTimes, Saturday, December 22, 2018)
One would think that the people who effectively live off government support would not vote the Republican ticket. They would not buy the anti-government propaganda because they know that were it not for the government, specifically for the federal government, they would starve and so would their children. In different parts of the country the jobs that maintained parents and grandparents – jobs in the mines, in steel mills and in manufacturing, well-paying, skilled jobs that maintained previous generations - are no longer there. Those jobs did not make anyone rich but they maintained families without too many financial worries and they created a working class that took pride in their accomplishments. The paycheck they took home at the end of the week, they felt, was earned by hard work and by skills they slowly learned on the job.
But now these jobs are gone and for many there are no other jobs available, other than temporary work that rarely lasts. In some of these areas about half the people are pretty much out of work and live, as we would say, "on the dole."
The surprising fact is that in spite of their dependence on the government, many of the citizens support the conservative position and vote for Donald Trump, regarding the government that actually keeps them alive as their enemy. One of the sources of Donald Trump’s support is actually in areas where work is scarce, does not pay well and many people are dependent for their livelihood on government handouts.
Not surprisingly that has perplexed a lot of observers. How could people dependent on the government be hostile to it? The explanations usually offered are that these segments of our population are mostly poorly educated, not very intelligent people who voted on their feelings instead of thinking about where their real interests lie. It seems undeniable that they vote against their most pressing self-interest and no one would do that if they were paying attention or if they had average intelligence.
However reasonable that explanation may seem, it has left many people uncomfortable. Why should our political enemies all be mentally deficient? Is there no one on our side who does not fail to think hard about political choices and is inspired by random emotions instead of careful thought? The explanation that poor people support the champion of the rich, Donald Trump, because they are plain stupid does not appear to be satisfactory.
Observers who hesitate to question the intelligence of conservatives sometimes try instead to explain their apparent voting against their own interests by portraying them as victims of propaganda. The poor people who vote against their own interest, it is said, are confused by the constant drumbeat of propaganda in the media, in entertainment, and in religion in favor of capitalism, in favor of the system that enriches some and leaves many others without work they can be proud of. But of course accusing people of being deceived by propaganda which would not for a moment deceive you and me is drawing an invidious distinction which is no more acceptable than calling conservatives stupid.
Now comes a professor from Cornell who, in a recent book, argues interestingly that the hostility against government does not only consist of hostility to government regulation – although that is an element in this conservative stance. (Suzanne Mettler, The Government Citizen Disconnect). The hostility to government is a result of putting people on the dole, paying for their food and lodging, making them completely dependent on various government bureaucracies. The complaint of workers in coal country, in towns supported by steel mills or heavy manufacturing plants is that there is no work for them. Working, especially if the work requires skills, supports self-esteem. Doing a good day's work that produces valuable goods, that leaves you tired at the end of the day gives you satisfaction. If the work requires skill you can be proud of having those skills and of doing what not everyone could do.
But those jobs have disappeared and no one in the government is at all concerned to bring them back or to replace them with comparable work. Just giving out of work miners or workers in the steel mill money so they can live and feed their children these miners and workers see as profoundly disrespectful. No one cares about their lives, no one cares about whether they can do work that is a real contribution, whether they can stand tall for being workers in what ever industry.
This is an interesting and important insight. It raises questions about what the role of government should be. Many people , especially on the left, are perfectly content to think of the government as a dispenser of funds to support the livelihoods of ordinary citizens. The role of government is to help people. But here now is a different conception of the role of government. It needs to create the conditions for citizens to have good lives, lives that satisfy, lives that one can look back on proudly with the sense that one has made a contribution to the betterment of all, that one's life had been worth living, that one’s goal had been more than simply not starving or freezing as a homeless person. What is valuable is not merely biological existence but life as a member of a community where one makes a contribution that is needed.
Given current economic realities, given the rise of robotics as a serious threat to human activity, no one, including governments, may be able to find good work for everyone. If that is so, governments need to be the agents of finding alternative activities for everyone to do their part in the life of their communities. What such activities that government might foster would look like is not totally clear. On the one hand, there is necessary work, for instance, rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, that the government should set in motion by financing it (instead of enriching the super rich through tax cuts.). On the other hand, the New Deal Projects like the Civilian Conservation Corps, or the WPA suggest how to think about creating good work.
Merely objecting to the government is not helpful here. If the role of government is going to change in a positive way towards enabling people to have good lives instead of merely staying alive, we need many different positive suggestions and reflections about them. Significant social changes is needed to resolve the challenge of men and women whose work has disappeared.
The people who may seem to vote against their own self interest are not unintelligent, they are not confused by propaganda. They need their society to care enough about them to develop new possibilities for leading lives that are worthwhile because they make significant contributions to this society.