Is the current era of hating the government waning? This love/hate relationship seems to be cyclical. This time, it began in the execrable 80s with Ronald Reagan’s now-famous joke, “If you hear ‘I’m from the government and I‘m here to help,’ you’re in trouble.” It’s hard to move the needle where government is concerned, and often the speed of change is glacial. As economist Milton Friedman pointed out, it takes a real worldwide crisis for meaningful change to take hold. We have been living that crisis for a year now.
After they got rid of Teddy Roosevelt and his “trust-busting” inclinations, the ultra-rich Robber Barons manipulated markets that were unregulated in any real sense, and used their wealth to keep Congress from passing laws that might check their avarice. The Crash of ’29 and the Great Depression were the unwelcome results, and government trust went out the window.
Even by 1917, not all Americans were pleased with the United States’ intervention in World War I, which was seen here by a large minority as a European conflict that didn’t threaten us. The fighting was costly and brutal, and it took the attack on Pearl Harbor at the end of 1941 to blunt the isolationists who demanded that we stay out of World War II. Slowly, as we waged, then won the war that saved the world from fascism, we remembered that government was…us.
We rebuilt Europe with the Marshall Plan, and President Roosevelt’s New Deal ushered in not only seven decades of unprecedented prosperity during which the American Middle Class was born, but it also heralded an era of public/private research partnerships that created the technologies that leveraged off what we learned in the war, and allowed us to escape the earth’s gravity and go all the way to moon.
From Omaha Beach to Tranquility Base, Americans owned the can-do government that led the world in culture, prosperity and innovation. We could—and would—do anything.
The New Deal created the American Middle Class by arranging huge government subsidies that got the economy started during World War II and allowed it to really takeoff in 1945. The vast majority of mid-century Americans loved their government.
But the New Deal also brewed trouble. The author of “The Sum of Us,” Heather McGhee, says, some Whites hate the government because they feel it sides with people of color at their expense. She dates this swing in sentiment to the Nixon campaign’s “Southern Strategy” which cynically sought to turn White Americans against a liberal government. In the 1968 presidential campaign, Nixon used the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights act of 1965 as cudgels to turn White people against their government by invoking a zero-sum-logic that reasoned if Black people were getting a hand up from the government, the government must be slapping White people down.
Meanwhile, and heedless of President Eisenhower’s warning about the “Congressional-Military-Industrial Complex,” government amped up war-time production—and the draft—and the Vietnam War swung the pendulum back the other way, decimating our trust in Washington. In retrospect, hindsight being 20/20, the “Red Threat” and the “Domino Theory” that said nip Communism in the bud wherever it tries to bloom, led us to overreact. We began to temper “can-do” with “we can, but should we?”
Before Watergate, the scandal that ultimately forced Nixon’s resignation, the Pentagon Papers revealed an entire covert war waged against Vietnam from Cambodia and Laos, and, more damaging, showed an administration with no respect for our laws, and a man who said, “If the President does it, that means it is not legal.” Congress added checks and balances to the Constitutional ones that had been abrogated, but the trust and faith that fueled our unity from World War II through Vietnam was carelessly discarded.
The cycle had turned and the pendulum had swung back to mistrust. By the mid-90s, when Newt Gingrich inaugurated the current era of the politics of personal destruction, that mistrust of government had metastasized into a deep mistrust of each other. Fueled by partisan, and it must be noted, for-profit media, the Hatfields and McCoys soon had nothing on the Democrats and the Republicans.
Now, the pendulum may again be swinging. Relatively quietly, public/private R&D partnerships are being reinvigorated. Without public money, there’s no Tesla and the iPhone is a dumb-phone. Maybe, just maybe, after Operation Warp Speed, the public/private partnership that created the COVID vaccines, and the sizable rollout of government-funded financial relief, the tide is turning. Sure, it’s an ocean liner that will take time to come about—and much depends on whether social- and partisan-media stop their profit-driven efforts to further divide us—but it appears a new era of trust in government may be dawning.