Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Tell us more, David Brooks: why do Americans mistrust government?

David Brooks makes a fair point today: Americans' lack of trust in government undermines liberalism.  But then he can't forbear to give his bias enough play to blame Democrats almost equally for this sad state of affairs.   His diagnosis skips or elides key drivers of this lack of trust.

First, it's cultural. Americans have been railing against the federal government since before it existed. The ratification debate was rife with fear that a tyranny was being established, a fear shared by many members of the Constitutional Convention.  Six-year Senate terms, lifetime judgeships, a vice president with feet in two branches of government, direct taxing power -- all were excoriated as instruments of tyranny. A few decades later, states' rights became the battle cry and vehicle for those who so resented any impingement -- or potential impingement -- on their "right" to hold slaves that they established their own weak confederacy custom-designed to leave them to their pleasures of personal dominion.

It's true that FDR's bold and successful initiatives -- federal unemployment insurance, social security, effective oversight of the banking industry, protections for labor -- coupled with a successful world war effort and a postwar boom in which the U.S. dominated global markets generated relatively high confidence in government for a few decades.  But then came Ronald Reagan, assuring Americans that government was the problem. And his party has never looked back -- not only disparaging government every time they open their mouths, but doing their best to sell legislation and regulatory oversight to their corporate overlords (or in the case of the Supreme Court, give it away) every time they get control of one or more branches of government.

Brooks cannot resist false equivalence. Republicans have blocked an unprecedented number of Obama's appointments to federal agencies and the judiciary. They have engaged in an unprecedented program of nullification, refusing to allow a vote on any nomination to agencies they disapprove of, e.g., the newly formed Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the National Labor Relations Board --openly aiming to prevent those agencies from functioning.  They tried to close off the Constitutional safety valve of recess appointments by using a procedural gimmick to avoid ever technically recessing.  Obama, meanwhile, has inexplicably forborne the mass recess appointments to which his predecessors Bush and Clinton resorted.  But when he finally calls the faux recess bluff and makes four essential appointments, in Brooks' eyes he is indulging in "vicious squabbles" that "may help Obama in the short term by making him look better than Republicans in Congress. But they will only further discredit Washington over the long run."

No, David. The aim is to discredit Republicans, who have tried to make the federal government stop working. And there's the real rub.  Brooks blames the Democrats for adopting Republican methods: " How many times have you heard Democrats from Carter to Obama running against Washington, accusing it of being insular, shortsighted, corrupt and petty?"  And that is one charge against Obama that has some heft. Throughout the late spring and summer as he was being snookered and betrayed by House Republicans who torpedoed a "grand bargain" for deficit reduction that Brooks himself characterized as "the deal of the century" for Republicans, Obama did direct his rhetorical fire against a generic "Congress." That was a deeply foolish attempt to avoid antagonizing antagonists openly bent on destroying him.

That soft-pedaling was worse than a crime, it was a mistake. Since Labor Day, Obama has rectified it by directing his firepower against Republicans in Congress who block his every initiative and attempt to foster the recovery, including policies they have long supported. He also, quite eloquently, defends the concept of a government that works to foster equal opportunity.

The only way to defeat endemic mistrust of govenment is to discredit the 30 year-old sustained campaign to discredit it (listen to the contempt and venom oozing from Rick Perry as he promises to close agencies whose names he can't remember and put Congress on part-time wages).The problem is a bit chicken-and-egg. But partisan combat -- and a recovering economy that will cast a kinder light on Democratic initiatives -- is the only way out.

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