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Many criticisms of the current American government are that it does not get the things done that need to be done, and reform the things that need to be reformed. These ideas may be very true. In “Government’s End”, Jonathan Rauch claims that special interests have stopped major changes from ever coming to government functions or programs. He claims that the static environment now could end up being the environment of America for ever more.
Rauch begins by commenting that the 1980s and 1990s seem to be a quieter time following the social and political upheavals of the 60s and 70s. But he feels that while society was calmer, controversy in government grew masked in the visage of discontent. The early 80s through the middle 90s were a time of reformism. Rauch feels that the reformers of this more modern era failed to remake the government. The government instead remade them.
Since the Progressive era, the government has become more open, had more access, and been more professional. Professionalism entered both the civil service and the political class alike. Congress came to consist of 535 individuals all fighting for their own survival. With this development, the economics of the system became nasty. Lobbies were everywhere trying to get what they wanted out of politicians. When one politician wasn’t going to be of help, then the lobby could always go somewhere else. Eventually, everybody had to have their “two-cents worth”. Rauch uses the slogan, “If you don’t play, you can’t win-but boy, can you lose!”
Rauch points out that by the early 80s, trust in the government had gone the way of the dinosaur-died. In place of the confidence were suspicion and cynicism. Both liberals and conservatives dreamed of reform, but neither could get anything accomplished. Whether Republicans or Democrats controlled the presidency, Congress, or it was split, still no one got much of anything done. Voters became exhausted and gave up.
Newt Gingrich, to Rauch, was a reformer who seemed as if he might be successful with his vision of change. He had a plan. He would start out by getting his supporters mobilized. The opposition party was still in shambles after the surprising defeats in 1994. The president stood shell-shocked in the oval office. Next, Gingrich wanted to swamp the lobbies by attacking more programs than could be saved. He hoped the many defenders would concentrate only on the things that were important to them. In this way, Republicans could not eliminate everything they wished, but still a lot. Finally, Gingrich planned for the long-haul. He felt that trying to get it all at once wouldn’t get anything done. Newt only got to his second step.
Rauch says that voters vote for change in theory, while legislators actually have to confront the constituencies affected by any change. To counter the larger amount of energy on the defensive side of reform, Gingrich thought that his fellow Republicans would stand up strong against it. Not so. Everywhere there ended up being a Republican or Democrat asking for just one program to be kept. Each congressman wanted the credit for having saved something. The reformers became overwhelmed. A small portion of the package survived.
Public mobilization can work for both sides of the reform issue. Gingrich found out that it is easy for the defenders of programs to spook the public to their side. All one of them had to do is say that teachers, retirees, students, farmers, or especially children were being hurt. However, it is hard for politicians to turn public opinion around against a lobby.
According to Rauch, there are some big examples of public opinion being used to defend programs. When Reagan tried to reduce Social Security benefits slightly, Democrats waged a propaganda assault against the Republicans through the 1982 elections. The Republicans lost seats. In 1995, Newt Gingrich and the Republicans wanted to make some cutbacks on the growth of Medicare costs. It was used against them in the 1996 elections. The same thing happened to Bill Clinton with his health-care plan except used by Republicans.
Why do these tactics work on the public? Some say it is because the public is ignorant and easily scared, but there may be another reason. Rauch feels the public will sacrifice for the greater national good, but not for a competing group. Debates become battles between groups instead of group against nation. For example, if the public thinks that the Republicans are acting in favor of their friends or big business, then many of their proposals are easily sinkable. The trick can be used by everyone because the charges are normally partly true, if somewhat exaggerated. Voters quickly believe charges because of the widespread cynicism. Rauch thinks that the cynicism is therefore self-fulfilling. When everyone thinks that everyone else will act in their own interest, then one has no reason not to look out for him or herself. Reformers therefore stand against opposing parties, lobbies, and the public- and are destroyed.
Rauch feels that the dissatisfaction with the government should bring about change, but it doesn’t. It has created so many interest groups and commitments, it can’t lift itself out of problems. The system lacks the ability to focus energy on one program and reform it.
Liberals have supposedly had their day since the time of the New Deal. With the growth of programs came the beginnings of modern Washington. Now is a time of stalemate. The government can’t get any smaller because of the many clients now dependent on it, and can’t get larger because of tax barriers. It only exists to live from year to year and serve its clients. Jonathan Rauch concludes that neither the liberal or conservative dream of government won out, rather no dream won out. The client groups prevailed and the government is stuck where it is for good.
This essay was one of the best I have ever read. I agreed with about everything that the writer spoke about. Strangely, the problems with our system of government stated in this article is the situation that I despise the most about our government in general. All the plans I come up with normally are toward ways to get us out of the status quo and into some action. Nobody wants conflict in society or politics, but the more conflict the better. As crazy as this sounds, large shifts in the functions of the government might actually get people involved. The problem to tackle now is how to get out of the status quo. For one, there needs to be an end to the professional politician who are poll-watchers. Part of the reason special interests have so much influence is because politicians don’t always do what will help the nation. If Gingrich’s Republicans wouldn’t have listened to any groups and stood together, more of the reform package would have passed. Those politicians wanted to be looked upon as heroes to one group- thus helping them when reelection comes around. There’s the problem right there. Fixing it includes passing a term limit on those in Congress. Until that solution is at least tried out, things look bleak.
Cynicism and mistrust of the government have been growing for years now. Part of the reason is the perception that nothing can ever be reformed or changed that needs it. Things that are left stagnant for too long become rusty and slowly mold away. I think the government deserves better.
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