Conservatives contend that the “mainstream media” is liberal. That may be so, but even if true, liberals, even if they have a message, don’t know how to sell it. Quick, give me a liberal aphorism or quote that helps set the political agenda today. Compare whatever you remember with these: “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” “Government’s first duty is to protect the people, not run their lives.” “Government’s view of the economy could be summed up in a few short phrases: If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it.” “The best minds are not in government. If any were, business would steal them away.” “The problem is not that people are taxed too little, the problem is that government spends too much.” “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’”
These are all the words of Ronald Reagan, and his rhetoric not only still resonates, it is often the starting point for any political policy discussion. The discussion does not start with the thought that government does good things or that taxation can lead to a better society. Instead, it starts with the premise that government is dangerous. Government is too big. Government is inept. Government is incompetent. Taxes are bad. Taxation is too high. Regulations destroy jobs. Reagan was so influential because he re-shaped the political dialog. Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson in their book American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made America Prosper point out that Eisenhower, in his 1953 State of the Union address, referred to government about forty times, almost all of them favorably. Bill Clinton’s State of the Union address in 1993, after Reagan, was almost the same length as Ike’s, but mentioned the government only about twenty times, almost always negatively.
Reagan’s rhetorical views of government still drive the political discussion, but his actual policies often undercut conservative ideology. Thus, conservatives continue to maintain that tax cuts will cause a spurt in the economy, and that economic growth will cut the federal deficit and reduce unemployment. Reagan engineered a major tax cut, but the federal deficit and debt ballooned. Reagan then went on to support specific tax increases, on gasoline, for instance, in a failed attempt to lower the debt. Part of the deficit problem, in spite of his aphorisms, was that Reagan did not cut government spending; instead, the size of the federal government increased significantly under his watch. (And, of course, there was Iran-Contra. Under Reagan, the United States illegally sold arms to Iran and then illegally gave some of the proceeds to rebels in Nicaragua. How did that befriending of Iran work out? And do you remember when Nicaragua was an existential threat to America? And am I the only one who thinks there might be parallels between Reagan administration contacts with Iran and Trump supporters’ contacts with Russia?)
The liberals have lost out on the starting point for what should be an essential discussion: What is the role of government? Hacker and Pierson note that modern discourse often sees government as only a vehicle for wealth redistribution. “But what is missing is an understanding that most of what government does is not about redistribution at all; it is about addressing a wide range of problems that markets alone are ill equipped to tackle.” And while Hacker and Pierson, among others, have attempted to expand the discussion beyond the conservative viewpoint, little has been accomplished. Instead, liberals or anti-conservatives only seem to respond to conservative claims. They don’t seem capable of seizing or molding the debate.
Al Franken, in his latest book, Giant of the Senate, gives an explanation: “Democrats always have a disadvantage in messaging—not because we’re idiots, but because we have complex ideas and, sometimes, a hard time explaining them succinctly. Our bumper stickers always end with ‘continued on next bumper sticker.’” That may be so. It is easier to proclaim that immigrants take jobs, for example, than to discuss that our economy is not a zero-sum game where a job for one is not simply the loss of a job for another; how immigrants help grow the economy by buying goods and services; how immigrants pay payroll and incomes taxes; how, as our birthrate declines, immigration is a force for necessary workforce expansion. Yes, no bumper sticker can do that. (Although not in bumper-sticker form, Senator Franken did a better job in his latest book of explaining the Affordable Care Act than I ever heard President Obama give. For this and other reasons, put Al Franken on your radar for possible Presidential candidates. A good start to see if you want to do that would be to read Giant of the Senate. Parts of it are laugh-out-loud funny, but other portions taught me, at least, things I did not know about how the Senate functions and about the views and abilities of Senator Franken.) But even sloganeering has not been a Democratic strength, the liberals and anti-conservatives don’t seem to be able to seize opportunities to point out that the conservative slogans often don’t hold water.
An opportunity to start a useful discussion comes right now from the hurricanes. As is usual in such a crisis, I heard someone complain to a news reporter about price gouging, but price gouging is simply the fallout from the law of supply and demand. The extraordinary, sudden demand for goods with a limited supply of them gives the seller the opportunity to make extraordinary profits. If you are a conservative who believes in leaving markets unrestrained, you should accept price gouging in an emergency. Interestingly, however, I have never heard any leading conservative who has mouthed platitudes about the importance of not interfering in markets defend price gouging. Instead, what price-gouging could teach is that almost all of us have concerns about our free market system and believe that it should be—oh, that fearful word—regulated some of the time. The debate should be when is that regulation best for the good of our society.
The fight for FEMA funds could also be an opportunity for an examination of conservative shibboleths. In accordance with their call for a smaller government, conservatives should be opposed to FEMA, and some conservative congressmen and think tanks have proposed a more limited FEMA. But when a natural disaster occurs, those in the affected areas tend to think that getting federal money is a right. Although it is never called this, it is seen as an entitlement. Furthermore, it does what conservatives say should not happen: it is a government program that redistributes wealth. This redistribution is not so much from wealthy individuals to those below them on the economic scale, but a redistribution of money to some parts of the country from the country as a whole. Natural disasters and other emergencies do not occur at the same rate throughout the country; some states–Texas, Louisiana, and Florida, for example–are more prone to them than others. A place like Texas takes more funds out of FEMA than it puts in while many other states put more in than they get out. FEMA redistributes wealth by geography.
Another way to look at FEMA, however, is that it is part of a social safety net. People are in need because of an disaster, and we as Americans–and that includes our government–help people in need. As with any aspect of our social net, we should seek to lessen the need for it in the future and seek to make those asking or demanding assistance more responsible for lessening their present and future need, but as long as we are one country, even though fortune and misfortune do not fall equally upon us, we should aid the unfortunate. Let’s start talking about FEMA as welfare, as wealth redistributor, as part of our social net, and tie them into a broader discussion of Americans who might need help from, yes, the government.
But liberals have not been good at changing the focus of policy debates. I have been thinking that since 9/11. (To be continued.)