Symposium | The Missing Progressive Infrastructure

A Group to Defend Government

By Michael Tomasky

Tagged activismGovernment

My idea is for an organization that will defend government. On its face, that may sound so simple and fundamental as to be unnecessary, like an art critic making the case for abstraction or a basketball writer defending the jump shot. But think about it. We’ve seen 35 years of unrelenting assaults on the government, with millions of Americans persuaded that the federal government is their enemy; and yet, over all that time, no group has made its mark by defending the existence and functions of this federal government. Specific interest groups guard their turf—environmental groups defend green programs, anti-poverty groups argue for programs for the poor. But no one simply defends government.

Here’s what this outfit, for which I do not yet have a catchy name, would do. First, its team of researchers would gather all the information it could about what the federal government spends everywhere. What has the Department of Transportation built in Little Rock? What has the Small Business Administration incubated in Knoxville? How much federal money supports research at the University of Missouri? How many federal dollars sustain the main research hospital in Tulsa? What lakes and rivers has the Environmental Protection Agency made once again swimmable and fishable in southern Indiana, and how much did it spend to do so? What sewage treatment projects wouldn’t exist without federal dollars? And on, and on.

Then, once all that information gets collected, this organization would build a state-of-the-art interactive website. So you live in Sioux Falls? You come to the website, you see a map of the United States, you click on “Sioux Falls.” The site zooms in and starts telling you—in an interactive and engaging way—about all the things the federal government does for Sioux Falls: the senior centers built, the convention center that wouldn’t exist if the federal government hadn’t provided the seed money, the support for the airport that would probably close if it weren’t for Washington.

All that would be great, but it inevitably depends on people actually visiting a website, which most people simply won’t do. So, in addition, this organization would need to have a big public-relations budget to trumpet all this news. It wouldn’t do so through The New York Times or The New Yorker. It might get some “earned” media out of outlets like that. But it would spend its money advertising, instead, in local newspapers, on websites and blogs that cover local and state politics, and even on retro delivery mechanisms like billboards (“The river you just crossed over had no fish in 1977, but today it does. Why? The EPA”). Outreach to local reporters encouraging them to do stories based on these facts would be vital. And, of course, the social media presence would have to be formidable.

The attentive reader will notice that all of my geographic examples—Little Rock, Knoxville, Tulsa, Sioux Falls—are in red states. That, really, will be the point. Make people in red redoubts come to terms with the fact that government money helped build that big fancy hotel downtown, which never would have occurred to them. That government investment in a certain kind of medical research helped save the life of that child who captured local headlines for three weeks last summer. To be sure, the organization would track such activity in the big coastal cities and Ann Arbor and Albuquerque, but the people there wouldn’t need as much convincing.

What good would this do? A lot—but it would take time. After all, we’ve taken 35 years of fire from government skeptics without really responding. This organization wouldn’t have any impact in one year, or two, or even five. But in ten or 15 years, a critical mass of community leaders in Little Rock and Knoxville and the rest would understand that without the federal government, their community would be a shell of what it is.

And finally, the work done by this organization would give progressive politicians and candidates a philosophical base from which to proceed. In an important sense, the fight during the last 35 years has been a totally imbalanced one—conservatives argue to the heart and gut with principles that have great emotional appeal (less evil government), while liberals argue to the brain with specifics that are lost on most people (food stamps help X million children). But the real argument for food stamps isn’t numerical. It’s philosophical. Our side just hasn’t been making it. We desperately need an organization that does.

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Michael Tomasky is the editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas and a special correspondent for The Daily Beast.

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