Amid the many controversies attending the election of Donald Trump is one easy to overlook: the mounting assault on “public goods” — public education, public lands, public information and public health, among them. The worldview of Trump and those he’s bringing into government is one in which seeking private interest is paramount, not only as a business aspiration but as a governing ideology. Of all the attitudes of the new administration, this may be the most threatening to democratic practice.
There has long been an ideological divide in U.S. politics in which liberals see the production and protection of public goods as a rightful — though not exclusive — function of government, while conservatives deplore interference in the free, private market. This tension, not necessarily a bad one for policy making, existed in some equilibrium from World War II to the 1980s.
The scales have been tipping toward private interest rather than public good since the years of President Ronald Reagan, however, and the coming of Trump promises an even stronger swing to private over public. Consider the funding of public education through the college years by individual states. These funds were declining steadily before the 2007 recession hit and then dropped even more sharply. By the end of the recession, support for public education had fallen more than 40 percent since Reagan was elected in 1980. It’s a destructive trend (not least because good public schools are a bedrock of prosperity) that is likely to continue. In the words of a professor of education, Trump’s pick for secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, is in effect “focused on trying to further the privatization of public education, not on strengthening it.”
Public vs. Private
The likely decision to turn the Affordable Care Act — designed to extend coverage through public cost sharing — and the landmark health care programs Medicare and Medicaid into privatization schemes represents a major blow to the provision of public goods. Both House Speaker Paul Ryan and Trump’s pick for secretary of health and human services, Rep. Tom Price, seem fully committed to this agenda.
Then there are the rumors about other public-goods issues. The staffing of environmental agencies is being directed by a longtime climate change denier, Myron Ebell, who seeks to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate accord, reverse Obama’s rules on reducing carbon emissions, and turn over federal public lands to the states. This agenda will be carried out, in part, by Trump’s choice for director of the Environmental Protection Agency, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.)*, named to be secretary of the interior. (Her preference, astonishingly, is to sell off public lands held by the federal government.) It would be difficult to imagine more significant public goods than clean air, the avoidance of catastrophic climate change or the legacy of the nation’s protected parks, forests and wildlife.
Yet all of these are in jeopardy. Turning over public lands to the states would in many cases result in “development” — commercial enterprise, resource extraction, grazing, roads and sell-offs of land — far beyond what is already granted on federal lands. The rationale for doing so can be gleaned from the Bundy family’s notorious confrontations with federal officials, first over nonpayment of grazing fees on public lands near their ranch in Nevada, then the armed occupation with a few others of an Oregon wildlife refuge. In each case the Bundys and their cohort insisted they wanted to “return” lands to the people from the unjust ownership of the federal government.
It was rarely noted at the time that “the people” already do have sovereignty over those lands, with the Park Service or the Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management — public agencies — as their stewards. There are no other “people” to “return” the lands to, unless one counts indigenous tribes, but of course the Bundys and their kind aren’t thinking that way. A radical change in status of public lands is a blow to the idea of America being in part a “commonwealth” — natural resources that are shared by all.
Likewise, attempts by Trump and his followers to punish free expression — speech and assembly — signals a blow to the “public sphere.” It’s most obvious in Trump’s tweeting attempts to silence critics, but a broader perspective should include the proliferation of fake news, the impact of foreign governments’ insidious infiltration of American public debate and the growth of hate speech directed at minorities and women.
Each of these attacks on public life and culture takes different forms. The public aspect of health care delivery — surely one of the early battles looming for the new president — is not about sovereignty or constitutional guarantees but a different principle, that of shared responsibility. Medicare and Medicaid, passed in 1965 as part of the Great Society program of President Lyndon B. Johnson, have contained the costs of health more assuredly than private insurance while providing universal coverage and earning approval ratings recently ranging up to 77 percent. One might say, in keeping with the conservative philosophy of Edmund Burke, a onetime intellectual hero of the right, that these health care programs, after more than 50 years and enormous success, are embedded in the traditions and values of American society and governance. They embody the principle of shared responsibility (as does Social Security), an indispensable quality of the public realm.
Poisoning the Public Well
Freedom of speech, religion and assembly are even more deeply embedded, of course, and protected in the First Amendment to the Constitution. The space for religious practice is now under challenge from the so-called alt-right, the old Ku Klux Klan and its imitators, as hate crimes and hate speech against Muslims and Jews have spiked after Trump’s election.
As for free speech and assembly, the “public sphere” — the actual practice of public discourse that engages topics of political and social importance — is crucial to free and democratic society. “A public sphere adequate to a democratic polity depends upon both quality of discourse and quantity of participation,” as one scholar depicts German philosopher Jürgen Habermas’ description of the public sphere. The quality of rational debate declines as participation broadens, Habermas insisted, an inverse relationship perhaps even more obvious now than when he first wrote about the public sphere more than 40 years ago.
What is particularly disturbing in 2016, however, is the attempt to limit participation and to limit the quality of discourse. The limits on participation are not gauged by expertise — that is, how knowledgeable you are — but by race or religion. A number of the white supremacists now ascendant have insisted that blacks, Jews and Muslims be treated differently, submissively, even denied the vote and other standard civil rights. So the very definition of who constitutes “the public” is under attack. It’s noteworthy that the U.S. Supreme Court has suggested that “the people,” as in “We the people” (the first words of the Constitution), refers to “persons who are part of a national community” and have “substantial connections” to the U.S. It’s notable because it’s a broad definition and would include such individuals as unauthorized immigrants.
The attempt to limit the quality of discourse is another feature of the White House campaign. The fake news, social media manipulations, Russian trolls and other disruptions constitute one kind of degradation of news and information. Another was the gossipy nature of the mainstream news media’s coverage, rarely taking up policy issues — by one reckoning, only a total of about 40 minutes on network newscasts during the entire year. Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns is another example, a particularly consequential act given the breadth of his business interests. All of this served to greatly diminish the quality of information and debate and thereby diminish the vitality of the public sphere.
Then there is the matter of what “the people” want the government to do. One of the challenges facing Trump is the paradox of public opinion — that is, on nearly every key issue of the 2016 campaign (immigration, climate change, the Iran nuclear deal, health care), public views endorsed the positions of Hillary Clinton, not Trump, frequently by overwhelming margins. On immigration, for example, 70 percent of the American public believes a path to legalization should be available to unauthorized immigrants, a view held for several years. Americans oppose the border wall as well as limiting Muslim entry into the U.S. On climate, two out of three Americans are worried a great deal by global warming. The main features of Obamacare are endorsed by Republicans and Democrats alike by large margins. It’s not so unusual to have politicians and the public at odds over specific issues, but the consistency and size of this gap between Trump and the public are striking.
To what extent the extremist agenda of climate change deniers or charter school advocates will win out is impossible to predict. Trump’s tumultuous post-election period — with charges of conflict of interest, destructive Russian connections and more gaslighting through tweets and rumors — does not promise more clarity. If anything, the massive transfer of commonly held wealth to private hands is likely, the public’s interests and preferences will be ignored, and the possibilities to know and understand what is actually occurring in the government will be obscured.
If the trajectory of 2016 continues through Trump’s presidency, the “commons,” the public sphere and the values of shared responsibility, will be tested as never before. It’s to be regretted that President Obama never made a “Cross of Gold” speech in support of the public sector and the principles of the common wealth. Now, the new president will be making the opposite case, and all of us will be the poorer — financially, physically and morally — for this loss of public virtue.
*Correction: Subsequent to this article being published, rumors held that Trump is considering Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Montana) for Secretary of the Interior rather than Cathy McMorris Rogers. Zinke’s record on environmental issues is mixed: skeptic of climate change, for more energy drilling, but resisting privatization.
John Tirman is author of “Immigration and the American Backlash” and is executive director of the MIT Center for International Studies.