Government by the People

If a politician runs on a platform that ridicules government, what can we expect of them if they are elected and take office? The first time I thought about that question, I was a state worker and George Pataki was running for governor of New York. His rhetoric at the time went beyond a belief in small government. I understood the notion that some thought that ‘government that governs least, governs best.’ I may not have agreed with the sentiment, but I understood it. And, as I saw it, that philosophy grew out of the streak in America’s history that idealized ‘rugged individualism,’ a belief in the primacy of individual effort and achievement. Pataki’s argument, though, struck me as qualitatively different. The statements he made demeaned state employees and made it sound like government was inevitably incompetent, that by its nature it was bad.

I felt personally insulted. While there were state employees who were lazy and inefficient, most that I knew were in it to do good things for people. I wondered what the impact of the rhetoric would be on people seeking to work for the state. Who wants to work for a CEO who seemingly doesn’t believe in the mission, or doesn’t have confidence in the workforce? It was demoralizing.

Pataki ran for governor for the first time in 1994 and he won. Since that time that rhetoric has become much more common, it has become ubiquitous and it has been amplified by social media. We elected a president who espouses those beliefs in the extreme. Trump has appointed personnel who are systematically dismantling their agencies. This raises a fundamental question: do Americans believe in government by the people, for the people? Or do Americans believe and trust in corporations?

I know what I believe. I don’t think either government or corporations are inherently good or inherently bad – both are made of people and people are people. There needs to be a healthy balance of public and private enterprise.

It used to be that we could argue about the size of government or the scope of the government’s role in regulating different areas of our lives (for example, health, housing, the environment); but not the basic premise that government could and should provide some services and oversee our safety. The differences between Democrats and Republicans, when I was growing up, centered on how active the government should be in regulating markets and in providing a social safety net. The pendulum swung back and forth a bit depending on who was in power.

Some elements of the culture wars of today were present then, too. There were differences in attitudes about reproductive rights and views of law enforcement, but it didn’t reach to the point of invalidating a role for government. Sometimes it feels to me as if the legitimacy of our government is at stake.

The incivility of the rhetoric is also markedly different. Personally, I am less concerned about that than I am about the beliefs that may underlie the incivility. Given the 24/7 news cycle and social media, people may need to be more outrageous to be heard. What is more concerning is this: do people really believe the things that they are saying/tweeting/posting?

Gary, my husband, has been talking about the damage Fox news has done to our country – he’s been pointing to that as a problem for years now. Former President Obama recently commented on the danger of living in different realities based on the media we listen to. It isn’t clear to me whether this is the source of the problem or a symptom of the problem. Are we listening to different sources of information because they conform to our ideas, or do those sources create our ideas? Either way, how do we change it?

Also, who will be willing to work for a government so disrespected, so disempowered? Who is going to get a degree in public administration if things continue in this vein? I believe we need professional, educated people to work for our government.

I have to believe that the tide will turn. I have to believe that Americans will not be willing to continue to cede power to Donald Trump, Steve Bannon and those who think like them. We can continue to debate the proper balance of public and private, of regulation and unfettered markets. We can argue about social issues, too. Those debates are healthy. I hope 2018 proves to be a turning point. I intend to do my best to make it one. We must move away from the rhetoric that is undermining the very foundation of our union.

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7 thoughts on “Government by the People

  1. Thank you for a well written and provocative blog post. This post brings up many issues but I would like to focus on the damage being done to our democracy by FoxNews. While essentially everyone understands that they present the conservative point of view, many also feel like there are similar liberal points of view on the air (MSNBC) so FoxNews is just one network and isn’t really a problem. I disagree.
    I disagree because FoxNews is incredibly effective and pernicious. It does not first and foremost inform people. It first and foremost inflames them, persuades them and exposes them to repeated messages that disable their ability to understand reality. There are several recurrent themes in FoxNews reporting.

    They repeatedly attack Democrats and liberals and present those with conservative views as victims, as targets of unfair attacks by those liberals. They repeatedly present various minorities as dangerous and as a threat. In effect, they present them as scapegoats. This scapegoating targets those vulnerable minorities who already may tend to be viewed suspiciously by many. The groups under attack include Muslims, Hispanics, LBGTQ individuals, African Americans.
    If you read FoxNews, you might think that most rapists are illegal immigrants, most African Americans are dangerous and unpatriotic, most Muslims potential terrorists. All of these groups are viewed in ways that exploit negative stereotypes and leave the viewer or reader feeling under attack.

    FoxNews reports stories that allege wrongdoing by Democrats and those sympathetic to them that are typically exaggerated in importance or even stories that are debunked. One example is the Seth Rich story that attempted to present another source of the emails that Wikileaks received and released to damage the Hillary Clinton candidacy. They kept reporting that debunked story again and again. And, on the other hand, they underreport or misreport stories about important issues related to the Trump presidency. For example, when a story breaks showing connections between the Russians and Trump campaign officials, they are often shown as the 5th or 6th story well down after attacks on Democrats. And, they often feature the response of the Trump administration rather than the actual story itself.

    Perhaps worse than all of the other themes in FoxNews’ reporting, is their attacks on other sources of news. There are innumerable stories about liberal bias in other networks or at newspapers. They typically start with the term: Bias Alert. In effect, they keep telling the FoxNews reader or viewer not to trust any other source of news. Any source of information that tells you not to look at other sources or not to trust them should immediately be viewed with suspicion.
    When we think of the difference between free countries and countries like Russia and China, the presence or absence of access to news that doesn’t conform to the government view is a reliable marker. In the case of FoxNews, rather than the individual being censored from other news sites, the individual is gradually persuaded not to view those other sources. They censor themselves.

    I know this is true because I hear it from colleagues who are FoxNews watchers. They all tell me the same thing. They essentially parrot back the official party line and that party line become increasingly indistinguishable from the Trump tweet or the Sarah Huckabee Sanders official White House position. It is all one coherent, effective and highly professional propaganda effort. And it leaves about 1/3 or more of the electorate believing things that are just not true. And not believing things that are true.

    This is not consistent with a functional democracy. An informed public is necessary for a reasoned debate of issues. We cannot have that reasoned debate when a large proportion of the country is seduced by this evil, anti-democratic machine. If we are to restore our democracy to what it should be, we need to make these issues a story. We need to attack and undermine the undermining influence of FoxNews.

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    1. Thanks, Gary, for elaborating on the problem posed by FoxNews. As you note, I didn’t focus on that aspect of the issue the country faces. It does beg the question: how do we undo the damage? or, how do we undermine its influence? Again, thank you for adding to the discussion.

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  2. What a well written comment on the state of affairs in our country today. I also hear from people who believe Fox News and all other stations are biased. I don’t know how it can be changed and feel great anxiety for our country. In the 20s and more in the 30s , then the 50s we went and survived the minority people whe were a disgrace to.our democracy . I hope the new elections will show a reversal of all that is happening now

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  3. I enjoyed reading your blog and Gary’s response, which is rather spot on. I read or view Fox News as I do CNN in order to enlightened my views & interpretations of what is currently going on within our country and outside it. I also read and view other news sources such as The Atlantic, The Hill, Geopolitical and other sites.

    In my opinion all the well known national media outlets have become biased in their reporting with Fox leading the way. This includes NBC, ABC, CBS & NPR. CBS is probably the least biased of these outlets. NPR for whatever reason has fallen off their unbiased positions, most noticeably with their morning edition anchor Rachel Martin. Unfortunately these outlets have taken the bait and succumbed to what Trump & Fox created during the 2016 election cycle by doing the same with a liberal slant.

    How to get out of the cycle? It’s got to start at the local level and work it’s way up to the state and then national levels. Local leadership needs to start re-focusing programs exemplifying and gaining a greater understanding of the Abraham Lincoln quote you posted at the end of your blog. This needs to be done not only in our schools but in social settings as well with unemotional conversation and debate. This would go a long way in getting us out of the cycle we are currently in.

    As a foot note to my last comment. When I encounter a Trump supporter and the conversation gets political I ask them if they know how the Nazi’s gained power in the 1920’s & 30’s? Too often they don’t have a great response to the question. I explain their propaganda machine focused on fake new, hate, etc…Basically if you tell a lie over and over and out shout the opposition people begin to lose their perspective and understanding of reality. Trump & his influencers have taken this path. When I bring this up I try to bring the conversation toward a centralist position, which ultimately is what we need from our leaders.

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    1. You make a really important point, Steve. I think we need to engage with people who think differently. Gary does also and I think it is useful. You may not move someone to change their views, but you may and everyone may arrive at a more reasonable position. I also agree that change generally comes from the bottom up. I’m hoping 2018 is a new beginning.

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  4. Fox is bias right, CNN & MSNBC are bias left. The viewers don’t want unbiased news. The viewers want their views reinforced. This country is politically divided. It has been since its inception. With modern technology, news is 24/7. You don’t have to wait until the evening news. To meet the demand, the corporations that provide the news has to give the customer (viewer) what they want ASAP. Peoples minds are already made up. No conservative is going to become liberal. No liberal is going to become conservative.
    Also due to modern technology, we are aware of news 24/7 & we are aware of the political divide 24/7.
    When we were growing up, national news had to wait until the evening. Prior generations had to wait longer.
    By the time it reached them, the news was old.
    Both the left & right blame each other. Each side says the other is corrupt. Each side says their solutions are right and morally superior. The problem is both sides are playing to their base to get their votes to stay in power. Neither side is willing to do what’s right. In my life, both sides have made grandiose promises but nothing ever really changes. There will never be any great bipartisanship compromise to solve anything because if problems are solved, politicians will realize we no longer need them.

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