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Drew Westen

Drew Westen

Posted January 26, 2009 | 10:16 AM (EST)

Rebranding Government: It's Time Politicians Stopped Running For or Against Government and Started Running it Well


For thirty years, Americans have absorbed the well-branded mantra of Ronald Reagan: Government is the problem, not the solution. They have absorbed it so well that it has literally become part of the fabric of their--and our--brains. "Government" is unconsciously associated with bureaucracy, failed programs, inefficiency, waste, socialism, and all kinds of words, concepts, and images that are in turn associated with negative emotions for the average American. Neuroscientists have demonstrated that repeatedly pairing one word or idea with another leads to changes in both the connections among neurons in the brain that represent those ideas and the readiness of those neurons to fire together, so that even those of us on the left do not realize that concepts like "bureaucracy" and "waste" are triggered unconsciously in our brains when someone mentions government.

The social psychologist Claude Steele and his colleagues have demonstrated how powerful the effects of these kinds of associations can be in their work on what they call "stereotype threat" in African-American students. Simply asking black students to fill in a question about their race among several innocuous demographic questions substantially lowers their performance on SAT questions. The same is true when asking female students to fill in their gender before answering math questions. Although black and female students may not consciously believe stereotypes about their relative intellectual or mathematical abilities, simply "priming" them with their race or gender activates those unconscious stereotypes, which in turn activates anxiety and undermines their performance. The best way to counter these processes--indeed, the most effective way to counter virtually all forms of unconscious bias or efforts at "stealth" persuasion or propaganda--is to make them conscious.

The effectiveness of the conservative branding campaign on "government" is in fact a central reason we are in the economic mess we are in today. The notion that government is an evil--among some voters a necessary one, but among most voters an evil nonetheless--is what led Democrats to remain silent for much of the last eight years as George W. Bush turned record surpluses into record deficits in the name of scaling back government intrusion; weakened or eliminated regulations that had been in place for decades to protect American consumers, homeowners, retirees, and people saving for their retirement or their kids' college education; and failed to regulate new threats that were as preventable as they were foreseeable, such as unregulated commerce in "commodities" most people don't understand (e.g., derivatives) or putting too much money into risky investments without enough capital to back it up if good-times loans were to go bad. And the effective branding of government as the problem is part of what has led, over three decades, to Democrats remaining relatively silent as our infrastructure crumbled because of their (well founded) fear that their conservative opponents in the next election would attack them for their "tax-and-spend" profligacy. The result has been that we cut taxes to the wealthy and failed to invest in our future in times of relative prosperity, while creating the conditions that will require nothing short of massive government deficit spending, extraordinary governance, and a lot of luck to get us out of an economy that is still in free-fall.

Fortunately, we have a leader at the helm who understands the fierce urgency of now. None of us has ever seen anything like a government-in-transition emerge with the rapidity and effectiveness of the new Obama administration, or a first week in office in which a new President reversed course so dramatically on so many issues--particularly in foreign policy--with stroke after stroke of his pen. Obama promised change, and he has already begun to demonstrate, in one domain after another, the last part of his campaign slogan: that this is change we can believe in, because it is happening already.

But all is not quiet on the domestic front. President Obama promised a bipartisan, pragmatic, solution-driven approach to governing, but a bipartisan solution requires the willing participation of precisely the people whose bankrupt ideology and overweening concern for those at the top of the economic ladder has led to record bankruptcies and a broken ladder for the middle class. And not surprisingly, the Republican super-minority in the House and Senate who only have a voice because the new President has graciously offered them one are using his beneficence to try to rehabilitate their ideology, rebuild it into a stimulus plan with an excess of tax cuts and a deficit of infrastructure development, and repeatedly attack any solutions anyone offers to the problems they created other than more tax cuts to the wealthy and a return to budget balancing at just the wrong time now that their friends will no longer be the beneficiaries of the record deficits they created.

As someone who has argued, for both historical reasons (unanswered attacks are effective attacks) and neurological reasons (allowing the other side to tell a story without immediately offering a counter-narrative gives them the opportunity to shape the neural networks that constitute public opinion without any interference), against ever handing the microphone over to your opponent without singing a duet, I was delighted to hear President Obama, less than a week into office, signal to the Republican minority that he was not going to reach a hand out to them unless they unclenched their fists, with his simple rebuke: "I won." In so doing he has sent a clear shot over the bow that if they want a voice in Washington it will need to be a constructive one.

But I believe he will need to do more than that. He will need to rebrand government, to make a case that what most Americans consider a dangerous Leviathan can actually be helpful to the lives of the average working American, and that what most Americans have come to consider "them" is actually "us." President Obama is asking Americans to make a leap of faith that that monster they have heard about for 30 years that steals a third of their paycheck and then wastes their money or redistributes it to the lazy and undeserving (and dark-skinned) is really their friend.

That is a tall order, and one that will require not only good policy but a transformational leader with a powerful story to tell. We have the leader, and his administration is groping toward the policy, but we haven't yet heard the story. We have heard the etchings of policy details but not the narrative about how we got into the predicament we're in and what principles--not just what policies--the President and his advisors are using to try to guide us out of it. How did we get to the point where we don't trust government but nevertheless expect it to rescue us? Why was deficit spending a bad thing for the last thirty years but a good thing now? The American people are profoundly ambivalent about government intervention, as witnessed by their fickle support for government efforts to rescue one after another drowning industry that could sink our collective boat. They need a leader who can tell them clearly, forcefully, and truthfully why the boat is filling with water, why they need to toss some very expensive life preservers into the water, and how the captain hopes to do plug the leaks and rebuild the ship while it's still on the ocean. And they need to hear this story over and over as they start to see the effects of what we can all only hope will be effective government intervention in the next few months and years until this new narrative overtakes "government is the problem, not the solution." President Obama has to tell whatever story he believes to be true, but this is the kind of story I have in mind:

We are facing a crisis like none we have seen since the Great Depression, and there's a reason for the similarity: The same ideology that led us into the Great Depression in the 1930s has led us into the most severe economic crisis we have had since that time. Both times we were brought to the brink of disaster by a radical ideology that says that if you just leave the free market alone, unchecked by any rules designed to protect our shared welfare and our shared values--like the idea that people willing to work hard should be able to get a good job, own a home, and feed their kids and take them to the doctor when they're sick--everything will work out. Well, we've now tried out that ideology twice, and it has been a disaster both times.

Franklin Roosevelt led us out of the Great Depression by taking a pragmatic, not an ideological path, setting up safety nets for people who didn't deserve to lose their homes or their dignity in retirement through no fault of their own, testing one program after another until he got it right. In the process, we learned something important: that the market may be the engine of our prosperity, but someone has to be at the steering wheel when that engine is on or we'll run aground, and that someone needs to be us: the people, through our elected representatives. That new vision of government guided us for 50 years, and it served us well, making us the strongest, most prosperous nation in the history of the world.

But over time, not everyone who led our government shared Roosevelt's vision of trying something out, keeping it if it worked, and discarding it if it didn't. Over time, bureaucracies calcified, and people felt entitled to programs whether they worked efficiently or not. Politicians found it difficult to make the hard decisions to keep what worked and cut what didn't, and others used that as an opportunity to play on our worst impulses, blaming all our problems on the poor or infirm. Then Ronald Reagan entered office with a simple creed: that government is the problem, not the solution. That creed resonated with a lot of people because it captured their sense that their tax dollars weren't being used effectively, that while they were struggling to make ends meet, a bloated bureaucracy was thriving on their hardship.

There was something to Reagan's critique, but his solution was too simple. Government is neither the problem nor the solution. Government is nothing other than us--the citizens of this country--coming together to solve our shared problems, and if it's ineffective, we need leaders with the courage and the vision to speak the truth and fix it. Unfortunately, over the next 30 years, the pendulum swung so far from Roosevelt's vision of government for the people--federal protection of our bank accounts, a minimum wage to guarantee that people who work hard can feed their families, Social Security so Americans can be assured of dignity in their twilight years, worker safety laws so they make it to those years, unemployment insurance to protect us against the inevitable ups and downs of the market, and regulations on Wall Street speculation that could prevent another crash--that we found ourselves right back where we were 80 years ago, with an unregulated market running amok, an ethic of unfettered greed, and a lot of good people losing their jobs, their livelihoods, their retirement, their health care, and their dreams through no fault of their own.

That is where we find ourselves today. It's time for politicians to stop running for or against government and to start running it well. It's time to set aside rigid ideologies and deal with the realities that confront us. We have an economy that is spiraling downward, and we have so tied our hands with unpatriotic, anti-government rhetoric that we haven't invested in our own country in decades. It's no accident that our bridges are crumbling, our levees aren't holding, and our children aren't getting the world-class education that will allow them to compete in the global economy. It's no accident that we can't trust the water our children drink, the food we eat, or the banks that finance our mortgages. It's no accident that our main import is oil and our main export is good American jobs. In all these cases the reason is the same: we have come to believe that the ship of state can run itself, that big businesses can police themselves without a real cop looking over their shoulder, and that we, the people, are so incapable of coming together to create institutions to serve our common good that we should just say no to the idea that we can govern ourselves effectively.

I believe Americans are better than that. I believe the nation that invented modern democracy can surely figure out how to solve our collective problems if we put our heads together and call that government.

Government is neither the problem nor the solution. It is us, and if it isn't, we should--and we can--remake it. We need leaders who understand that the market is the chief engine of prosperity in a free society, but that sitting idly by as people lose their jobs, their homes, or their doctors isn't leadership.

Drew Westen, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at Emory University, founder of Westen Strategies, and author of "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation."