Although Reagan and Gingrich have long been out of power, there is a sense in which the Reagan-Gingrich era of government-bashing still rules America. Their accomplishment, begun by Reagan and hammered into place by Gingrich, is quite remarkable. The “government is bad” meme has been floating around in GOP circles for nearly a century. What they suceeded in doing, however, is implanting it as the knee-jerk, default belief, not only among conservative ideologues, but among millions of low-information voters, including Independents and not a few Democrats.
I’m not saying subscribers to the meme are a majority at the moment. They are not. A CBS News/New York Times Poll conducted 7/24-28, for example, found that 53 percent of respondents were “not willing” “for the government to provide fewer services” in key areas to reduce the federal budget deficit, with 31 percent saying they were willing. But 31 percent suggests there is a sizable minority, large enough to obstruct and often prevent the enactment of needed reform legislation.
There is a temptation, maybe it’s the common wisdom, to attribute the phenomenon to Reagan’s charisma and Newt’s shrewd manipulation of the media — both undeniable factors. But I would argue that the single most potent factor that fuels the meme is the acquiescence of Democrats and progressives. Yes, I know, many Dems and progressives scream loud and long in defense of government programs. But usually we are preaching to the choir. What we rarely do is reach out and target persuadable voters with educational campaigns about the virtues of government.
Even when Democrats control the reins of government, like, ahem, now, we fail to trumpet its formidable virtues. Sure, every government agency has brochures and web pages pointing out its accomplishments. But hearts and minds are not won by brochures or even, gasp, web pages. They are won by television.
We can wait in vain for news programs to produce even-handed prime-time reports on the effectiveness of government in serving the needs of the people. File that one under “not gonna happen,” the rare exception being a program like Ken Burns’s upcomming documentary series on America’s parks. What’s possible, but missing at the moment, is widely-televised advertising that demonstrates the important contributions of government to improving the lives of all Americans. Absent that, the government-bashers can frustrate social reform indefinitely.
There ought to be a major, government-funded TV ad campaign that explains the accomplishments of government and its various agencies. It should be continuing and pervasive, not occasional and spotty, reminding voters of the vital importance of national defense, social security, medicare and medicaid, roads and parks, the lives saved by consumer safety regulation and enforcement, clean air and water protection, the jobs provided, etc., etc. ad nauseum. It should be so pervasive that even low-information voters will be familiar with informed arguments for challenging mindless government-bashing.
I can understand why Republican Administrations have failed to advertise the virtues of government. But the failure of Democratic Administrations to invest in substantial pro-government advertising is pure negligence. To be successful, any enterprise, private or public, has to advertise its benefits. And any enterprise that doesn’t advertise is begging for failure. More to the point, such a major advertising campaign is eminently justifiable. If it’s OK to fund brochures and web pages, it’s OK to fund TV ads. TV is expensive. But short, creative ads should nonetheless be a larger part of the communications budgets of every federal agency. Hell, there is a strong case for free ads under the public service guidelines of most privately-owned TV stations, at least those that are not controlled by right wing media interests.
So I’m hoping President Obama will meet this challenge and use the resources at his command to make it happen. Until then, it might be a good idea for the more well-healed progressive organizations and individuals, like People for the American Way, MoveOn.org, Soros, Spielberg and many others to create a consortium to fund an ongoing TV educational campaign about the vital contributions of government.
Some day in the not-too-distant future, when the seamless merger of television and the internet is fait accompli, there may not be such a compelling need for more televised advertising about the contributions of government. The technology has arrived, in that streaming video almost makes it possible for everyone to have their own little TV station. Until then, however, every dollar spent on televised advertising to remind people about the many benefits of government is a cost-effective investment in a better future — and every moment waisted in not meeting this challenge is a gift to the GOP.