Can Government Still Work?

Fifteen years ago I gave a talk at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government entitled "Government Can Work" and having spent my entire professional career, spanning nearly four decades, associated with government, politics, and public policy I firmly cling to the notion that we have a system that while dysfunctional at present can still do good things. I recently have been teaching a public policy course at Santa Monica College where I take great pains to outline the fundamental precepts of our system of governance stressing the need for compromise and the reality of incremental change. The system divined by the founders was designed to be slow, deliberate, resistant to wild swings, and was imbued with various checks and balances to ensure stability.

Although this construction is irksome and frustrating, particularly in times of great stress such as the current economic slowdown, we have shown that we as a society are capable of responding to crises and our government is capable of effective if not timely response. On occasion, such as the other night, I was engaged in a deeply animated discussion with a good friend over the state of our political system and the primary points of contention revolved around whether communities should have the right to preempt states and the Federal government on certain issues, a concept I struggle with given the geopolitical divide evident in most recent national elections and the abysmal turnout in localized contests. Historical experiments with states' rights and individual communities' defiance of Federal law, i.e. civil rights, voting rights, equal opportunities and education, lend great pause to the notion that all communities will behave in appropriate fashion.

That our country is politically polarized is probably one reality both sides can actually agree upon. But I fear that ideological and conceptual polarization has become a casualty to politics rather than the other way around, and this creates something approaching an impenetrable barrier to compromise and effective policy making. That the contemporary dysfunction is largely asymmetrical, as clearly elucidated by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein in their book entitled "It's Even Worse than It Looks", is becoming more and more evident in recent studies and there were two studies released this past week that paint a disturbing and dreary portrait of a society fraying at the edges.

The first study conducted by Fairleigh-Dickinson University reports that 29 percent of those surveyed believe that armed revolution in order to protect civil liberties might be necessary in the next few years. That, in itself, is an astounding result, but when one digs deeper into the numbers you will discover that within that group those identifying themselves as Republicans account for 44 percent, Democrats account for 18 percent, and Independents account for 27 percent. Actually, I was more astonished that so many Democrats believe that armed revolution is an appropriate remedy, but once again recent discussions with my more liberal friends over the state of the realm and the lack of confidence in our processes of governance should have prepared me for such a result.

But party affiliation dictating by almost a three to one ratio the need for armed revolution clearly crystalizes why our system is currently stuck in the mud and has resorted to the absurdity of sequestration as the bluntest of policy tools. And here we sit as a society mired in the muck of inaction, paralyzed by ineffectiveness, exacerbating the inequities and inequality between the haves and the have-nots, and foisting faux austerity measures on an unsuspecting electorate that is simply fed up, fearful, angry, and tired of a seeming inability on the part of our system and our leaders to fix the problems.

Equally as frightening, on the other hand, is a study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business by Dena Gromet and reported by Tim McDonnell in the Dish in an article entitled "The Climate Change Culture War" in which individuals were given the choice between conventional light bulbs and compact fluorescents. The study found that when the packaging contained a label entitled "Protect the Environment" there was a significant drop off in moderates and conservatives choosing that option. In essence, protecting the environment is a deterrent rather than an inducement to choosing energy saving light bulbs with significant numbers of moderate and conservative voters. How in the world have we arrived at this point?

If political labels and ideologies are this deeply ingrained into the fabric of our political make-up how are we going to reconstruct a system that is now deliberately sacrificing the collective self-interest of current and future generations? Will it actually take an armed revolution to effectuate such a deep cleansing? I believe we are capable of addressing these two very real indicators of crisis but that does not mean we will do so anytime soon. At issue here is timeliness and in the case of an environmental degradation that is quickly passing the point of no return we simply do not have the luxury of time.

Unfortunately our system and its leaders has shown a great capacity to react to crises but similarly has exhibited an unwillingness to plan for prosperity. Seldom are there rewards for averting crises. Take for instance the actions of the Obama Administration in preventing further job losses through stimulus spending; one could argue that the politically wise thing to do would have been to let unemployment rise and then address it, thereby being able to show real action through reaction. But that would have caused needless harm to millions of Americans and the President chose to do the right thing. Thinking long-term rarely reaps political rewards and thus short-term and reactionary remedies are the preferred course for far too many of our leaders, a term I use quite generously.

In order for our system to regain its balance, statesmen and women need to step forward and buck the current trend that party identification and ideology are more important than preventative actions. For over three decades we have allowed the insidious mantra that government is the problem and not the solution to permeate our decisions and while we may not agree with all the decisions all the time the simple fact is that government is essential to our collective well-being. History is replete with examples where government decisions have made life better for multitudes of individuals. Somehow we must muster the courage to do the right thing.

Optimism is not popular at this juncture but it is necessary. By unshackling our adherence to rigid ideological and party identification we can begin to disassemble the legalized corruption and bribery that is strangling effective policy-making. Campaign finance reform would be an essential first step in restoring confidence and integrity to a system that is currently seen as blindly beholden to special interests. It will happen eventually, the only question is whether it will be in reaction to the calamitous path we are now on or whether it will be forward looking in an attempt to forestall and reverse that path. I prefer the latter.