03/05/2007 05:15 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Big Challenge for Progressives: People Don't Believe That Government Works

The newest Democracy Corps polling/focus group report has tons of good news for Democrats, including continued terrible approval numbers for Bush and the Republican Party as a whole. But there is some stuff in there that also just scares the shit out of me, and ought to scare anyone who cares about the broader progressive agenda.

Look at some of these numbers:


If the federal government were to receive additional money, do you think the additional money is more likely to be spent well or is it more likely to be wasted?

  • Spent well: 13%
  • Wasted: 83%


A. Government does more to help people get ahead in life.

  • 30% agree

B. Government mostly gets in the way of the economy and job growth.

  • 57% agree


A. Government mostly stimulates the economy and job growth.

  • 34% agree

B. Government mostly gets in the way of the economy and job growth.

  • 54% agree

Question: Which statement do you identify more with?

A. I want Congress to first invest in areas like health care, education, and energy, even if it means spending additional money.

  • 36% agree


B. I want Congress to first focus on cutting wasteful spending and making government more accountable.

  • 58% agree

Even assuming that part of this sourness toward government is a result of watching Bush and the Republicans screw things up, numbers like these are still fundamentally troubling to any progressive who believes that government has an important role to play. It's a good reminder of why, even with the disaster of Republican rule in recent years, there are still enough of the swing voters I wrote about in my last post to decide elections.

There are two things I take from this, one long-term and one short-term:

  • Long-term, the broad progressive movement needs to have a serious multi-year strategy toward convincing Americans of the positive things a well-run government can bring to their lives. Part of this effort will be good framing and messaging, of course. But the biggest part is accountability: making sure that our elected officials are actually doing their job of delivering services and other tangible benefits to people in a fair and efficient way. (As a side note: this is why I was a lot more excited than many progressives when I was in the Clinton White House about the National Service, 100,000 cops on the street, and re-inventing government initiatives we implemented. Anything that delivers good things to our citizens in a non-wasteful way also helps our movement build confidence in the enterprise of government.) Holding elected officials accountable is far easier said than done, but in all of our work, we should continue to push elected officials at every level to deliver tangible benefits to their constituents.
  • Short-term (meaning the 2008 cycle), it means running candidates who are capable of credibly assuring voters that they really will run an accountable, competent, non-wasteful government. That does not mean, by the way, that we need to nominate and elect more conservative Democrats, it just means that progressive Democrats need to get voters to understand they can be effective at running the government. Competence can't be the main thing candidates run on (see the Dukakis campaign), but it has to be part of the package.

All of this is challenging and the Republican attack machine is expert at raising basic competence questions about our candidates. It's also hard to get passionate about making sure government actually works, but its importance to the long-term progressive mission cannot be understated. I would love to know what you think about this: am I overstating it? Do you have any specific policy ideas that can help make government work better? I'd love to hear from you...

Mike Lux is the President of American Family Voices, an issue advocacy group sometimes described as the "free safety" of the progressive movement, and does consulting for progressive organizations and donors through his consulting firm, Progressive Strategies LLC.