Just about five years ago, then-President Barack Obama gave a routine campaign speech in Roanoke, Virginia. In that speech, he sought to impress upon his audience the integral role government plays in our lives. He spoke of State-funded education, infrastructure, and scientific and industrial investment. Obama brought his point home by bluntly reminding the businessmen and women in the audience that “you didn’t build that.”
Impolitic as the phrasing may have been, the President’s speech was otherwise unremarkable, unobjectionable, and, if anything, obvious. Yet the speech was met with unmitigated outrage. Critics cast Obama as contemptuous of free markets, entrepreneurialism, and hard-working Americans. (Indeed, so much hay was made out of the speech that the Republican Party centered a night of its National Convention that August around a “We Built This!” theme.)
The President could, of course, have gone further, underscoring the importance to businesses and entrepreneurs of government investment in the environment, public health, and the arts—not to mention liberal bankruptcy laws, limited corporate liability, and pro-business tax policies. He could have seized on the “you didn’t build that” phrasing to announce further public spending. Or the President could have simply reminded his audience that, like it or not, bureaucrats are often entrepreneurs’ guardian angels, or at least their designated drivers.
But instead of doubling down in the ways just suggested, the President back peddled. He insisted his claims were taken out of context and conceded that, “[o]f course, Americans build their own businesses.”
Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson capture the public outcry in their brilliant, timely, and wonderfully named book, American Amnesia. Hacker and Pierson argue that we’ve largely forgotten our not-too-distant past when, in the aftermath of World War II, we accepted, embraced, and at times even celebrated government involvement in the political economy. This isn’t to say that government and regulated industries were always BFFs—just that there was a general consensus supportive of a capitalist welfare state.
Today that consensus feels quaint and distant, as evidenced by, among other things, the throng of attacks on President Obama for merely stating the inconveniently obvious. But notwithstanding that quaintness and distance, perhaps Hacker and Pierson’s amnesia diagnosis is too charitable. It suggests that our forgetfulness is accidental or even justifiable, caused by some external trauma—and I for one am not prepared to concede that the highly centrist, neoliberal policies of recent presidential administrations rise to the level of amnesia-inducing trauma.
We might say instead that what we have is something akin to American Denial or American Cognitive Dissonance. Though not as catchy, those labels may be more accurate. After all, we haven’t actually forgotten all that government has done—and continues to do. We apparently just can’t stand to be reminded. This is true for workaday Americans who abstractly rail against the welfare state but cling to their myriad entitlement programs and demand cleaner water, safer pharmaceuticals, better infrastructure, and more affordable, higher quality colleges and universities. And this is true, too, for the titans of industry who complain bitterly about creeping socialism while jostling with one another to be first in line to receive tax credits, investment subsidies, and lucrative government contracts.
For decades now, this denial or dissonance, however precarious and unpleasant, has more or less enabled us to muddle through. While not making light of the deregulatory policies of the Reagan, (both) Bush, and even the Clinton administrations, many if not most of the New Deal and Great Society programs have been preserved—and plenty more have been added by way of new health, safety, and consumer welfare initiatives.
Coming into the 2016 election, concern over this denial or dissonance might have registered in terms of unsustainability. How long could we maintain this fiction—insisting on the continuation of our cherished government programs while disdaining government, its people, procedures, and institutions? It is one thing to incessantly deride and insufficiently fund government institutions and personnel—and then expect little from them. It is quite another to incessantly deride and insufficiently fund them—and still demand quite a lot.
That type of disparagement has taken its toll, demoralizing workforces (under Democratic and Republican Presidents alike) and degrading institutions, many of which have been underfunded for years. Under such conditions, we are bound to get caught up in a vicious cycle—with complaints about government leading to funding cuts and workforce alienation, which in turn cause government service provision to suffer, which serves only to fuel more complaints, and so on and so forth.
But the surprising victory of President Trump seems to have disrupted that vicious cycle in complicated ways. His attacks on government are qualitatively and quantitatively different from those we’ve grown accustomed to. Substantively, he’s called for a dismantling of the civil service. Rhetorically, he’s questioning government workers’ loyalty and integrity, and likened these federal employees to swamp creatures. These critiques seem more frequent, more aggressive, at times more personal, and often border on the paranoid and conspiratorial. Trump’s bullying tactics are a game changer, but not in the way he may think.
Slowly but surely, people may begin to rally around the bureaucracy, championing the new underdog, subscribing en masse to rogue government twitter feeds, and generally rediscovering (or simply belatedly acknowledging) the essential role played by those we’ve begrudged for too long.
Perhaps then some good may come from Trump’s ham-fisted efforts to drain the swamp. During the depths of the economic crisis in 2008, Rahm Emanuel remarked that one should never let a crisis go to waste. For Emanuel, the soon-to-be White House Chief of Staff under President Obama, the economic crisis was an opportunity for comprehensive regulatory reform. For us, the over-the-top attacks of bureaucracy—and a corresponding crisis of confidence and, quite possibly, an anticipated disruption or distortion of cherished services—may create an opening to reembrace government.
If and when that crisis comes, we should be ready—ready with plans to revitalize our bureaucracy. Among other things, we should be prepared to rebuild the depleted and demoralized bureaucracy through recruitment and retention initiatives and through policies that bolster civil servants’ capacity to speak truth to power. We should, moreover, trumpet our bureaucracy, touting the work of government scientists, social workers, regulators, and lawyers as critical contributors to our dynamic political economy. It is, after all, they who amplify our greatest successes and cushion our greatest falls.