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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

P.R. Campaign Needed to Check Government-Bashing

This item by J.P. Green was originally published on July 19, 2011.
A couple of paragraphs from former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich’s blog jump out to underscore a huge gap in public awareness that must be addressed:

A recent paper by Cornell political scientist Suzanne Mettler surveyed how many recipients of government benefits don’t really believe they have received any benefits. She found that over 44 percent of Social Security recipients say they “have not used a government social program.” More than half of families receiving government-backed student loans said the same thing, as did 60 percent of those who get the home mortgage interest deduction, 43 percent of unemployment insurance beneficiaries, and almost 30 percent of recipients of Social Security Disability.
…One would have thought the last few years of mine disasters, exploding oil rigs, nuclear meltdowns, malfeasance on Wall Street, wildly-escalating costs of health insurance, rip-roaring CEO pay, and mass layoffs would have offered a singular opportunity to explain why the nation’s collective well-being requires a strong and effective government representing the interests of average people.

Andrew Levison and others have advocated government reform and getting people more involved in decision-making to challenge the GOP’s “government is the problem” meme. No doubt this is correct. But I think the federal government has an additional problem — lousy public relations. It’s as if even Democratic administrations have been hustled to believe that promoting the effectiveness of government programs is somehow an unacceptably partisan activity.
The selection above from Reich’s blog indicates that it’s not safe to assume that citizens have an adequate awareness of what government does for them. Citizens do need to be expressly reminded from time to time about what they get for their taxes. It’s not a panacea for government-bashing. Government certainly needs reforms to improve public attitudes toward it. But not educating the public about what government does for them makes the Republicans’ anti-government propaganda a lot easier.
I think there should be a permanent public education campaign, using every facet of the mass media to remind people of the important things that government does for them. It should be creative, use humorous skits — whatever it takes to get the public’s attention.
When corporate America wants to sell a product, they promote the hell out of it. Government should do the same, if it wants people to know that they are getting value for their money.
Government funding of such a campaign could certainly be justified. In fact not doing it is more of an indefensible failure, something that is understandable only when it happens during Republican administrations. Progressive groups should also participate in a major public education campaign. Doing no p.r. is a gift to the Republicans.
The website, governmentisgood.com, one of the best internet-based antidotes to government-bashing, has an interesting post “Publicizing What Government Does for Us,” which argues,

We also need to become more aware of what government is doing for us. Many of us rarely think about what we get for our tax dollars – the kinds of services that our local, state and federal governments are providing for us every day. Remarkably, when asked if government has had a positive effect on their lives, 45% of Americans insisted that it has not. But it is revealing that when these same people were asked about specific government programs, a majority said that they had benefited from programs on food and drug safety, consumer protection, workplace regulations, public universities, public schools, roads and highways, parks and recreation, environmental laws, medical research, police and the courts, and social security. So when people stop thinking about government in the abstract, and are made to think of particular government programs, they are more apt to recognize their beneficial effects on their own lives.
Pollsters have found that if they first remind people of the various government programs and services provided for them, and then ask them to rate government, the results improve. “After people consider different government activities and programs, they are more likely to report that government has a positive effect on their lives.” Hardly surprising.
…Governments could also learn from non-profit organizations and charities, which send out annual letters to their donors explaining all the good works that have come from their donations. Our state and local governments should be sending out “annual reports” that inform citizens of all the good their tax dollars are doing. For example, our local government should tell us how many criminals it has arrested, how many supermarket scanners and gas pumps it has checked, how many fires it has put out, how many parks it has been maintaining, how many construction sites it has inspected, how many miles of roads it has cleaned and plowed, how many gallons of clean water it has provided, how many drunk drivers it has gotten off the roads, how many restaurants it has inspected, how many people have used the public libraries, how many children it has educated, and so on. As the old saying goes, “It ain’t bragging if you can do it” – and government is “doing it” for citizens every day.

Nothing is going to stop the Republicans from wholesale government-bashing. But a strong, well-crafted response from Democrats and progressives can help limit their effectiveness.

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