Reform movements have historically understood the need to look to the federal government to solve social problems. That remains true today. Avoiding environmental catastrophe will require public sector initiatives; reversing the trend towards increased income inequality will necessitate new governmental income-support and labor market programs; the same is true if adequate medical care is to be provided to this country's low and middle income population. When markets fail to provide goods and services fairly, only government intervention can rectify the situation.
But a major obstacle impedes reform efforts today -- in large numbers the American people distrust the government. Polling data make clear that this distrust is deep. Starting in 1986, nine out of ten surveys undertaken by the American National Election Studies revealed that more than half the people polled agreed with the statement "public officials don't care what people think." With attitudes like these, it is a very hard sell to convince the electorate to support policies calling for an interventionist public sector. Most voters believe that the government caters to special interests and not to the needs and desires of the American people.
This hostility to the government is particularly damaging to Democrats and progressive politicians. Going back at least to the New Deal of the 1930s, they are the ones most identified with government programs. Though it is true that programs such as the G.I. Bill of Rights, Medicare, and the Social Security system have been brilliant successes, it nonetheless is the case that the electorate treats these as exceptions. The prevailing belief is that the government offers the bulk of its services and benefits to the rich and well-connected, precisely those who provide the funds that allow politicians to run successful political campaigns.
It is therefore not surprising that the public's attitude toward the Congress has become sharply more hostile since the Democrats assumed its leadership after the 2006 election. In January of this year 35 percent approved of Congress' performance and 56 percent disapproved. By early October only 23 percent approved of the way Congress was doing its job, while 71 percent disapproved. While the people have had their fill of Republican sanctimony and the never-ending war in Iraq, the Democrats remain tainted as defenders of non-responsive government.
What is surprising is that liberals have done little to try to overcome the public's aversion to government. There is no mystery concerning the source of that hostility; similarly it is not hard to devise a strategy to overcome that mistrust. The electorate believes that the government is a tool of the rich and is not responsive to the needs of most citizens. It follows then that the way to win voter goodwill for the public sector is to advocate policies that will curtail the disproportionate influence that private wealth exercises in the political system.
In this, formal support for a publicly funded election system, without making it a top priority, is not good enough -- though this is the approach adopted by several of the Democratic presidential candidates. The public's skepticism is so profound that only by making "fair and clean elections" a matter of great urgency will people come to believe that its advocacy is not simply sophisticated dissembling.
The sad fact is that Democrats, energized by the possibility of ending eight years of conservative rule, have not responded in this way. Their strategy is to hammer at the ideological radicalism of the Republican base and the incompetence of the Bush Administration. And they well may be right that this will provide them with the White House. But what they have not done is address the pervasive distrust of government that blocks reform efforts. Progressives and liberals call for government interventions without cleansing the government of special interest favoritism.
As a result, there is a trap that awaits them if their electoral strategy is a success in 2008. A Democratic president who seeks reforms to reverse environmental degradation, achieve a greater degree of income equality, and provide reasonably priced health care to all will almost certainly be stymied. On one side, she or he will confront the opposition of entrenched anti-reform interests that benefit from the status quo. But more importantly, the new President will find it very difficult to mobilize a government-averse population in order to counter that opposition and implement reform.
The likely outcome will be the kind of neo-conservatism that characterized the first Clinton Administration. Such an administration of course would be a vast improvement over the current one. But it has to be remembered that the crises in the environment, health care, and income distribution all intensified during the 1990s. Triangulation did not work then and certainly will not work now.
The country needs a President who not only wants to address its problems, but who in addition will be able to call upon the people to actively support progressive initiatives. Such support will only be forthcoming if people trust government. That, in turn, will not happen until candidates running for office no longer are required to depend upon wealthy private contributors for the money they need to mount effective campaigns.