Ronald Reagan once said, “the most terrifying words in the English Language are, I’m from the government, and I’m here to help”. When Reagan was elected Carter was President, but he appeared helpless or maybe even cursed; the Iranian Revolution and storming of the U.S. Embassy, the hostage crisis, the failed attempt to rescue them, the OPEC oil embargo. America seemed battered and on her knees. Reagan was charged with playing the role of Hollywood President. He talked tough and exuded confidence, but took his orders from the head of Merrill Lynch.
It is important to distinguish the differences between history and mythology. Reagan is hailed by the modern conservative movement for shrinking government, cutting taxes, defeating communism and restoring America to greatness. In reality he did none of this things.
The most significant blow Reagan dealt to America was the quote above, and the shift that it represented. Reagan taught us to hate government, to believe that government was the source of all our problems, that government couldn’t get anything right and that anything government did was doomed to fail. If all of this seems obvious, you’re either unaware or have forgotten America’s past and deny what it was that made America special in the first place.
Our government was an experiment to see if there could truly exist a government that Abraham Lincoln described as being, “of the people, by the people, for the people”. A government that would serve the will and interests of the governed, and would reject the European model of aristocratic plutocracies that our founding fathers fought to overthrow. All of the major powers in the world were ruled by Kings and Queens claiming legitimacy in the name of God. They were also in the pockets of bankers and corporations. The Boston Tea Party was the first anti-corporate protest in American history. It was against this backdrop that America was born, a country whose government derived it’s power from the consent of the governed, and not from the divine right of a leader who claimed to serve as God’s living emissary on earth. This was a radical, liberal idea in the 1770’s.
For most of American history, this was the framework in which we saw our government; flawed, imperfect, but ours. It was this that enabled the U.S. Government to accomplish an impressive string of achievements in a relatively short period of time, and it’s this legacy that modern conservatives and all who buy into their misguided “government is the problem” rhetoric deny and rebuke with their an-historic views.
To those who say “the government can’t get anything right” or is “the problem, not the solution”, I would like to point out an inconvenient truth: almost every great achievement in American history was accomplished by our government. This isn’t opinion it is fact. The “free market” has provided us with junk foreign made novelties and trinkets, but very few noteworthy accomplishments.
Without the direct and active involvement of our government, America as we know it would not exist. To give just a small example of American governments accomplishments (which would never have been accomplished by a purely free market system, absent government assistance). The Hoover Dam, The Louisiana Purchase, Lewis and Clark Expedition, Panama Canal, National Power Grid, Federal Highway System, Apollo Space Program, G.P.S. Satellites, Hubble telescope, G.I. Bill, the internet, personal computers, satellite imagery, jet engines. This list is in no particular order and is by no means complete, but represents a tiny fraction of achievements accomplished or made possible by our government. To say that the government does nothing right is either mendacity or ignorance.
And yet Reagan painted government as the problem, rejecting and overturning it’s historical role as a partner to and servant of the people. Reagan cast government as a giant bureaucracy, ominous and malevolent, an enemy of the people. Reagan managed to take a series of governmental nuisances, conflate them with current events such as the gas and hostage crisis, and then use the disastrous Operation Eagle Claw to paint a picture of bloated government incompetence – at a time when the public was gullible and desperate enough to buy this act. Either Reagan or his puppeteer Donald Regan should have won an Oscar.
Prior to Reagan “good government” was not only seen as possible, but desirable. The role of good government as envisioned by our founding fathers, was to provide a cohesive suite of services to the people, all for the common good. These included but were never limited to, a system of roads, a postal system, the formation and maintenance of a Navy, a system of laws, to promote the general welfare and maintain the peace. For the better part of 200 years, the U.S. Government stood as a beacon of good governance, and oversaw our rise among nations to a position of leadership – economic, military, social and moral. Political corruption existed and bubbled up from time to time, but always ended in a thorough and public examination, followed by corrective laws to prevent recurrence; we learned from our mistakes. Those days are gone. They ended during the Reagan Administration. Today’s confused conservative movement falsely claims that they want to “restore” an America that never existed in the first place.