First Principles: The Role of Government

By Michael Tomasky

It might seem an odd time to make a case for government. After all, government, its scope and role, was at the center of the recent election campaign, and voters unequivocally said “enough.”

But progressives aren’t going to give up on government because of one election. A strong role for the federal government as incubator, nurturer, and watchdog is central to the progressive vision of society. What needs to be reexamined is not our commitment to it. Rather, we need to reexamine just how it is that the right has made so many people so furious at the very idea of government, and how we succeed and fail at persuading them otherwise.

In this “First Principles” series, Democracy will visit core questions across a range of topics in succeeding issues. We’ll look at citizenship and civic values, the economy, the Constitution and the courts, and other subjects. In each package, we will feature essays that look at how the right built its arguments, break down why those arguments are misleading, and put forward new progressive facts, ideas, and metaphors.

Here, the esteemed historian of the right, Rick Perlstein, gives us a bracing intellectual history of conservative arguments against government; the exaggerations and calumnies that may feel new to some people today go back to the 1920s and revolve (then as now) around whipping up fears of indoctrination and limited freedom. Alan Wolfe, director of Boston College’s Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, argues that conservatism is not a movement of limited government, as it claims to be, but one of willful failure: Today’s conservatives are so irate and extreme, and so obsessed with political advantage, that they not only cannot govern but will not govern. And Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer, authors of The True Patriot, make a strong and provocative case for a redesigned federal government, a government with large ambitions–indeed, even larger than its present ones–but with a far less controlling hand over how those ambitions are achieved. It’s the kind of fresh thinking that we need right now, with one of the central pillars of our vision of society under sustained attack.

Enemies of State

By Rick Perlstein


Why Conservatives Won't Govern

By Alan Wolfe


The "More What, Less How" Government

By Eric Liu Nick Hanauer


Michael Tomasky is the editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.

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