"Money On My Mind" is a monthly column by Jay Mandle. The views expressed here are those of the author, (not necessarily those of Democracy Matters or Common Cause), and are meant to stimulate discussion.
By Jay Mandle
The political Right’s victory could not be more comprehensive. It has won the battle of the budget deficit with a plan that contains only cutbacks in expenditures and raises no new tax revenue. Government will be miniaturized just as Grover Norquist and his Americans for Tax Reform have long sought. Never mind that government taxation as a percentage of the gross domestic product stands at a 60 year low and that the country desperately needs the wealthiest Americans to contribute increased revenue. Reduced tax receipts represent the leverage that the Right long sought. Curtail that inflow and cut-backs in government spending are sure to follow.
Barack Obama won the election in 2008, but that victory did not reverse the small government tide the Right has promoted and which swept it into the powerful position it now occupies. The administration has been on the defensive since, in its first days in office, it was forced to make concessions on its signature health care program.
This therefore is much more a political and ideological defeat for the Left than anything having to do with the budget or the economy. In place of the liberal view that the role of government is to intervene in areas where the market and economy fail, the Right has convinced a large number of Americans that the country would be best served by a small scale government.
The Right’s success rests on one very solid foundation. The American people do not trust their government to serve their interests. Polling data in this regard are unmistakable. Since 1974 The American National Elections Studies (ANES) survey, taken every two years, has consistently reported that more than three–fifths of respondents agree that the government is run for the benefit of a “few big interests.” The ANES trust in government index has trended downward since the mid 1960’s and stood at an all time low in 2008. 1 With results like these it is easy to explain the Right’s triumph. Their small government message receives a supportive response because that position harmonizes with the skepticism of the American people about the government’s intentions.
But that skepticism is not encoded in the genetic make-up of the people in this country. There was a time – albeit many years ago – when most people believed that the government was run for the “benefit of all”; 64 percent believed this to be the case in 1964. The downward trend in trust was a product of the public’s perception that the government was no longer responding to its needs and interests. Stanley Greenberg, an analyst who regularly does survey work for progressives, reports that increasingly Americans in looking at government “see a nexus of money and power, greased by special interest lobbyists and large campaign donations.” 2
What this means is that advocates of government programs of support for people struggling in hard times are not credible. Voters do not believe they will be helped. Again a quotation cited by Greenberg captures the problem: “there’s just such a control of government by the wealthy that whatever happens, it’s not working for all the people; it’s working for a few of the people.” In short, better no government than a corrupt and hypocritical one. With that, the Right wins.
The fact of the matter is that in a market economy there is always a need for public sector interventions. Markets are heartless. The progress they produce involves pain as well as gain. There are always victims as well as victors. And because sometimes, as in the financial crisis, they can produce calamities they require tight government regulation. This case can be made and be bolstered by lots of historical evidence. Nevertheless the public is dubious. When people look at the large-scale financial contributions political patrons provide to politicians running for office, they conclude that whatever is said it is the interests of well-to-do donors that will actually be served.
To counter the siren call of the Right, it is necessary to provide an alternative vision: a vision of a supportive government that can be trusted to respond to people’s needs - not primarily to campaign donors. The public funding of candidates for the Congress would provide such an alternative. Because those candidates who accepted funding would not be dependent upon wealthy donors, it is an alternative that would in Greenberg phrase result in “detoxifying politics.”
There is no better place to start to mount a counterattack on the Right than with the budget deal itself. Its terms preclude public funding of all kinds. The deal’s authors therefore are vulnerable because they hold out no prospect of a fairer more equitable politics. Small government advocates are necessarily defenders of precisely the political quid pro quos inherent in private campaign financing that people despise. Exposing that and advocating the public funding of political campaigns as an alternative would serve the dual purposes of discrediting small government advocates and restoring credibility to their liberal opponents.
1. The ANES Guide to Public Opinion and Electoral Behavior, http://www.electionstudies.org
2. Stanley B. Greenberg, “Why Voters Tune Out Democrats,” The New York Times Sunday Review, July 31, 2011