The effects of Hurricane Katrina will be felt for years. Financially the
reconstruction of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast will cost unknown billions
of dollars and resources. We still don’t know how many are dead. One of America’s icon cities may
Perhaps equally profound, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina may cause some
Americans to reevaluate their views of government. On the one hand, it may
make some Americans more pessimistic about government. As we watched
helplessly on our TV sets the rising pools of water drown an entire region
and its people, followed by the feeble federal response, unfortunately some
Americans’ belief in the power of government to help people took a dunking.
But that would be the wrong conclusion to draw from this tragic episode. If
the federal government and its various agencies had been better prepared for
this entirely predictable natural catastrophe, there is little doubt that
the damage and death toll would have been much reduced. The better
conclusion is that government, done correctly, really has an indispensable
role to play. An efficient and effective government can improve our lives,
whether in times of crisis or over the long haul.
“Unfortunately,” says Yvonne Lee, former commissioner with the U.S.
Commission on Civil Rights, “the far right have for years asserted that the
federal government is a problem, not a solution in Americans’ lives. Yet
Katrina has served as a costly reminder that the federal government can, and
must, serve the public good.”
Indeed, going back to Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the right wing has mounted
an ideological campaign to malign government and portray it as “part of the
problem.” Newt Gingrich and George W. Bush continued this ideological
attack, a calculated conservative strategy 30 years in the making, to enact
huge tax cuts by portraying government as an ineffectual bumbler and sugar
daddy for welfare queens and other wasteful programs.
Bill Clinton signed up the Democrats for this detail when, with one eye on
re-election, he declared in his 1995 State of the Union Address that the
“era of big government is over.” Even today, political opportunists of all
stripes are willing to scapegoat government to win elections, even if it
means undermining government itself.
Not surprisingly, given this incessant attack against government, the
public’s confidence has waned. And with it has waned our belief in
representative democracy itself, because if the American people don’t have
much use for government, then what use is democracy? Thus, this ideological
attack on government has formed the philosophical underpinnings for an
attack on democracy itself, even as we try to export democracy to the Middle
The reputation of government is suffering from a massive public relations
crisis. It gets no credit for the good things it does, and all the blame
and scorn for the mistakes it makes.
But whether the service is delivering the mail, taking care of seniors via
Social Security and Medicare, constructing roads and highways,
telecommunications, hospitals, schools, defense, scientific research,
national parks, railroads, airways and waterways, environmental protection,
the Internet, and much, much more, government has been the leading player,
oftentimes partnering with America’s businesses.
Government has been the driving force behind regulating the economy,
interest rates and inflation, as well as creating policies that grow and
maintain the middle class such as pro-homeownership, worker protections, the
40 hour workweek and paid vacations and holidays. And yes, the federal
government has been there many times in the past to shoulder the burden
following natural disasters.
Americans should be proud of the many accomplishments of their government.
Yet while Americans display a high degree of patriotism, much of that is not
identified with “the government” but with “the nation.” This bifurcation in
the American consciousness is a distortion of reality, and substantially a
result of the relentless far-right campaign against government.
Political leaders should look for ways to make government credible and
desirable in the minds of the American people. To enhance its credibility,
government also should be honest about admitting its failures. This public
relations challenge would remind the public what government has done, both
well and badly, and what remains to be done.
Part of the solution is to use conventional means to counteract this
anti-government propaganda blitz. Just as any business knows, advertising
is essential to marketing and branding your product. Government should
advertise its accomplishments just like a business does through TV and radio
ads, reminding the public of the good things it accomplishes.
A potential advertising theme could be “Government Is Good for You,” with
the ads showing the many ways that government does good things for
individuals and communities, from providing direct services to producing
regulations that facilitate business providing direct services.
Now, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, is a perfect time for Americans of all
stripes to reflect on the proper role of government. Who will deny that,
for hundreds of thousands from New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, whether
Republican, Democrat or independent, right now they are wishing they had had
more government, not less, prior to the storm and in the days afterward?
Yes, it’s true, government can be good for you.