In the Arena

The Fruits of Reaganism

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I know this story about the flagrant politicization of the Justice Department is not new. And it’s only the latest chapter in the history of corruption and free-range squalor that is the Bush Administration. But lately I’ve been thinking back to the beginning of this political cycle, back to Ronald Reagan who came to office saying that government was not part of the solution, “Government is the problem.” And it seems to me, the tendency to disdain government–to assume, as Bill Clinton used to joke, that government could “mess up a two-car funeral”–is what led to the profound disrespect that the Bush Administration has shown for even the most basic aspects of governing, like respect for the civil service system. It’s what led the President to appoint the head of the Arabian Horse Association (or whatever it was) as head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and also to the massive deficits we now suffer, to the utter lack of strategic planning for infrastructure and energy needs. (More on that in my print column this week.) Indeed, the right wing radicals who have informed this era consider the word “planning” almost as insidious as the word “government.”

To be sure, there were excesses of government in the past. To be sure, the government has to move from the top-down centralized structures of the Industrial Age (especially in education) toward the more flexible, customized networks of the Information Age. But I suspect that with 80% of the public thinking that the country is moving in the wrong direction, we’ve come to the end of the Reaganite pendulum swing…and I hope that we’ve come a moment when we can put the work of government back in its proper perspective–not as an overweening stifler of individual creativity, but as the expression of our common goals and needs. That seems simple enough. We’ll see if the public is ready to abandon the rutted prejudices of the past 30 years.