Counting the Costs of the Dark Politics of Fear and Loathing

            The noted professor, sometime United States (U.S.) Secretary of Labor and prolific writer and commentator, Robert Reich, wrote recently that he believes Americans are collectively in the midst of trying to discern which set of institutions to trust least and blame most for what they perceive to be their increasingly intractable and unhappy plight: government or business. If that is so, it represents a very sad turn for the nation and a profoundly wrong-headed turn for this nation’s citizens, occasioned at least as much by the politics of “values mobilization” as by empirically warranted events. That is, while surely there is cause for Americans to be deeply concerned about the profligacy, wanton risk-taking and profit-mongering of many of its largest corporations in the years prior to the nation’s recent deep recession, it is less obviously clear why they should be as concerned about their public institutions. I note this not believing government is without flaws or has not made important mistakes, but wishing to suggest instead that it has done a reasonably good job of reflecting the public’s passions in recent decades. The fact that has not always been pretty is not the fault of those institutions. While such is said infrequently, it may instead reflect poor public choices.

            If Americans are not happy with the course of the two wars this nation’s leaders launched of their own accord in the last decade, they should recall that substantial majorities of their fellow citizens supported those actions. If they are unhappy about how poorly positioned their governments may be to regulate better say, major banks, mines or deep water oil exploration to cite three recent examples, citizens might recall that for several decades majorities have championed public “deregulation” of the marketplace so that it might work its magic unfettered by government oversight. Reflecting this same orientation and an enduring concern over public institution efficiency, substantial portions of the electorate have also strongly supported candidates of both major parties over the last thirty years who have demanded a more “business-like” government.

            If citizens are now unhappy that it is often difficult for government to act with dispatch, obvious accountability and transparency, more of them might recall that their conflicted values concerning the relative role and reach of government in our political economy have occasioned a new form of governance in which government does much less itself and seeks to mobilize all manner of partners, including privately-owned, for-profit collaborators to undertake necessary actions on their behalf. Whatever else might be said of this sea change in how government operates over the last few decades, it is surely more difficult to mobilize intermediaries than it is to marshal resources over which one exercises direct control. It is also certainly more difficult to determine whom to hold accountable and for what when the terms of oversight themselves are available for contention and government must sort out whom to hold responsible for unacceptable performance in complex partnerships and why. Our national government has become a giant contract agent for everything from missile and other defense systems, to buildings, to office equipment and building supplies, to research of various sorts and much more. But operating and overseeing such efforts and building the wherewithal to do so takes time and money and energy and is likely to be conflictual as well. Nonetheless, U.S. citizens exhibit little patience or understanding for the workings of the complex machine their values have wrought.

            On the other hand, American governments are among the most professional and least corrupt in the world and deliver an enormous array of services with effectiveness many nations envy. We take our daily postal delivery for granted and grumble about its cost when countless individuals around the world have no such service, at whatever price. We take for granted that millions will receive social security and disability checks on time and in the correct amounts. We assume that the military services will proceed with alacrity when called upon to do so and with necessary capacities to undertake whatever challenges assigned. We are collectively (and appropriately) vexed when we learn a public employee has misused funds when, in point of fact, such occasions are relative rarities in the United States compared with many other nations around the world. This list could be lengthened, but it suggests a public service dealing with the complexities of its assignments with surprising effectiveness given both the immensity of the challenges it has been asked to address and the often-convoluted ways in which it is asked to deliver those services, i.e. by, with and through multiple intermediaries from other sectors of the nation’s political economy.

            So, why precisely, given these realities, should Americans be deeply mistrustful of the intentions and competence of their government? Certainly not because it is reasonable to imagine those institutions can or should be expected to be perfect or error free. And certainly not because they have bungled what were easy tasks that any other government might have undertaken with dispatch. Rebuilding an entire nation in profound political, cultural and economic disarray is surely no easy challenge (Iraq), or making one governable that has never really been so (Afghanistan), a proverbial walk in the park. These salient national examples say nothing of the countless other difficult tasks Americans look to their governments at all levels to address.

            If all of this is so, why then the penchant, to which Reich points, to be angry with government? So, mad in fact, that Reich saw citizens choosing whether to dislike government more than the businesses that had played a critical role in bringing the United States close to financial catastrophe. A new book, Fault Lines, by Professor Raghu Rajan of the University of Chicago suggests one answer for why so many Americans stand ready to blame government against all comers for their woes. Many citizens are feeling profoundly insecure, as social inequality, stoked by increasing income inequality, has created larger and larger fault lines in American society over the last three decades.

            Rajan points out that those falling behind socially and economically are less educated and less likely to find positions that will secure social mobility than their educated counterparts. They realize well, Rajan argues, that the nation’s social safety net is not especially strong relative to that provided by many developed nations, and their prospects little stronger. Accordingly, with unemployment remaining stubbornly near 10% and the economic recovery taking longer than historically has been the case, they are fearful and open to apparently simple explanations and ways out of their plights. Ironically, however, those already well off are just as insecure and concerned that they not lose their status in society either. Accordingly, they too are fearful and insecure.

            And some leaders and would-be leaders will always stand ready, not to work to ensure greater income equality, provide increased educational opportunities or a more robust safety net, all exceedingly difficult tasks that might be debated as means by which to allay growing social inequality, but instead to offer a ready-to-hand target for these individuals’ abiding fear and concerns. These leaders, whether knowingly misleading citizens or believing their trope themselves, tell citizens that it is government (its overbearance, its lack of action, its abject failure to address their needs and fears or a changing and conflicting and conflicted combination of all of these as seems apt) that is to blame for their sense of unease and growing awareness of their relative insecurity and inability to progress along the social and income ladder.

            Concern over governmental power is hardly news in America as it reflects a deep cultural fear of a too powerful and potentially tyrannical government. Few friends of democracy would argue a healthy skepticism concerning government power is ever misplaced. Nonetheless, it is worth remembering a prudent regard for individual freedom is one thing, while a search for a scapegoat out of fear and social anxiety is quite another. Citizens mobilized to loathe their government are, in the United States at least, lambasting the only institutions that unite them. Moreover, merely railing against government, as some sort of dark force, or hobbling it, will do nothing to improve long- term educational opportunity or ameliorate income inequality, the root causes of many Americans’ pervasive unease.

            The troublesome thing about such political mobilizations is not whether government or business will “win” the prize as most loathsome, but that there is a public competition for that dubious distinction at all. Democracy demands prudent and deliberative action and can ill bear the delegitimating quest for false scapegoats because they can roil citizens to the polls. Whatever one’s partisan disposition, a polity and parties oriented principally to mobilization by manipulation of the fearful, otherwise disconnected from responsible public concerns and problems, cannot be healthy for sustaining democracy. This “wind of change” is more than discomfiting as, to the extent it strengthens, it suggests a nation unwilling to address its needs in a reasoned way, and instead in search of easy choices and quick fixes that enervate public life and capacity even as they fail to address imperative social needs. There is no “winner” in this sad competition.