|September 21, 2005|
President Kennedy's Words on the Role of Government
A BUZZFLASH READER
As we reflect over the destruction of Hurricane Katrina, and the role that government failed to play in protecting American citizens trapped by that natural disaster, the words of President John F. Kennedy ring boldly down the decades.
In a 1962 commencement speech to Yale university graduates, President Kennedy stated:
Throughout the rest of the speech, President Kennedy then launched into an insightful discourse that outlined his view about the proper role of government. He framed the discourse by asking two key questions:
In recent years, America's political leaders have answered those questions by downplaying government's role, even to the point of demeaning it. Instead, they have promoted the notion of the individual as the essential actor in an "ownership society."
Since Ronald Reagan's presidency, conservatives have mounted an ideological campaign to malign government and portray it as "part of the problem." Newt Gingrich and George W. Bush continued this attack, part of a decades-long strategy to enact huge tax cuts by portraying government as an ineffectual bumbler and sugar daddy for welfare queens and wasteful programs. Bill Clinton signed up the Democrats for this detail when, with one eye on re-election, he declared that the "era of big government is over."
Yet as we watched helplessly on our TV sets the rising pools of water drowning an entire region and its people, with the poorest and most vulnerable citizens taking the brunt of it, it raises uncomfortable questions such as: WHY, in the world's wealthiest society, were these citizens so poor and vulnerable to begin with?
The answer to that question strikes at the heart of the conservative ideology that government is "part of the problem." Who will deny that, for hundreds of thousands from New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, whether Republican or Democrat, right now they are wishing they had had more government, not less, prior to the storm and in the days afterward?
Under decades of conservative attacks, the reputation of government has suffered 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 instead of a balanced discourse about the proper role of government, its good and its ills, that discourse has become entangled in the partisan war. But President Kennedy tried to move this discussion away from partisanship. He said:
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina is a perfect time for Americans of all stripes to reflect on the proper role of government in the "practical management of a modern economy." That discussion also should include a dialogue about who benefits from that economy. After two decades of shoving government to the margins, and the poorest and weakest Americans along with it, it is time to renew this dialogue with a new vigor.
Yes, it's true, government can be good for you. If one of the consequences of this natural disaster is that Americans reevaluate our views of government, that would be a good thing.
A BUZZFLASH READER CONTRIBUTION
Steven Hill is an Irvine Senior Fellow with the New America Foundation and author of "Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics" (www.FixingElections.com).
BuzzFlash Note: For citizens who claim they pay too much in taxes or don't want to pay them at all, we created a list -- "If You Don't Like Paying Taxes..." -- which you can send to them.
You might also read George Lakoff's "Progressive Frames for Taxes."
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