WHY GOVERNMENT DOESN’T GET CREDIT FOR ITS SUCCESSES

ABSTRACT: Government rarely gets credit for its successful programs and initiatives in the media or among the public. On the other hand, government failures or shortcomings get lots of attention. One reason is that denigrating government is at the heart of the political strategy of small government proponents and special interests who want large corporations and the wealthy to control our economy. Furthermore, there is no one presenting a forceful argument that government is a necessary part of a functioning society and that government does a lot of good.

Governments are needed, for example, to regulate the economy, protect civil rights, and ensure public safety. There are certain societal functions that only the shared enterprise of government can provide including public education, retirement security, infrastructure such as roads and bridges, a criminal justice system, and a safety net for those who experience life’s misfortunes.

A series of events over the last 50 years has divided the country and created resentment and mistrust of government policies. These experiences have been in sharp contrast to the unifying nature of the recovery from the Great Depression, World War II, and the widespread economic prosperity of the 1950s.

The active and purposeful government-denigrating forces have spent the last 35 years undermining government effectiveness. By under-funding and weakening government programs, the positive effects of government have been lessened and failures made more likely.

Among the public, the benefits of government are often taken for granted, seem to be going to other people, or are invisible or not visibly connected to government. Even direct government benefits are often taken for granted, including unemployment payments, Social Security and Medicare, public education, student loans for higher education, and the income tax deduction for interest on one’s home mortgage. Many people who have received such benefits say they have never benefited from a government program.

The media should cover government success stories with at least the same level of attention they give to stories of government shortcomings and should reject fear mongering and government bashing that is political and unfounded. The American public needs balanced coverage of government, including reporting of all the good government does.

FULL POST: Government rarely gets credit for its successful programs and initiatives in the media or among the public. On the other hand, government failures or shortcomings get lots of attention. [1] There are a range of reasons for this phenomenon. One is that denigrating government is at the heart of the political strategy of small government proponents and special interests who want large corporations and the wealthy to control our economy.

Furthermore, there is no one presenting a forceful argument that government is a necessary part of a functioning society and that government does a lot of good. Governments are needed, for example, to regulate the economy, protect civil rights, and ensure public safety. There are certain societal functions that only the shared enterprise of government can provide including public education, retirement security, infrastructure such as roads and bridges, a criminal justice system, and a safety net for those who experience life’s misfortunes. However, there is no organization or political group with anywhere near the clout of the government bashers that is promoting the good things government does and should do in well-functioning society.

Faith in government has been falling in polls for 50 years. A series of events has divided the country and created resentment and mistrust of government policies, including:

  • Resurgent racism over the Civil Rights Movement and the War on Poverty of the 1960s;
  • Disenchantment with the Vietnam War in the 1970s;
  • Disillusionment over the Watergate political scandal in the 1970s;
  • The small government, pro-corporation, and anti-labor rhetoric and policies beginning in the 1980s;
  • The North American Free Trade Treaty of the 1990s;
  • The Iraq War of the 2000s; and the current
  • Racial bias evident in law enforcement and incarceration;
  • Unjustified barriers to voting in some states; and
  • The slow economic recovery and growing inequality.

These experiences have been in sharp contrast to the unifying nature of the recovery from the Great Depression, World War II, and the widespread economic prosperity of the 1950s.

The active and purposeful government-denigrating forces have spent the last 35 years undermining government effectiveness. They say that taxes – government revenue – can be cut without reducing government services or benefits. Unfortunately, the American public has been willing to believe this promise of a free lunch. Until recently, it hasn’t noticed the deterioration in government services and supports, as well as the decaying of public infrastructure that has inevitably resulted from reducing government revenue. By under-funding and weakening government programs, their positive effects have been lessened and their failures made more likely. And the anti-government crowd is all too happy to point the finger and say, “See, government doesn’t work,” when the then inevitable shortcomings become evident. As a result, the public’s perception of government has been undermined as well.

This makes it hard for those who support the positive role of government because they have to criticize the weak, poorly performing government programs to make their argument for strengthening them. This criticism often just adds to the negativity surrounding government.

Among the public, the benefits of government are often taken for granted, seem to be going to other people, or are invisible or not visibly connected to government. For example, the government’s successful response to the Ebola crisis was taken for granted by many, seemed remote and as benefiting other people to others, and was connected to hospitals and medical personnel not to the government that had funded and supported them. The public isn’t left with a strong, positive impression of government when it acts to avoid a worse outcome, as in the Ebola crisis or the response to the 2008 financial collapse and recession. In particular, with the economic recovery, it is hard to get the public to acknowledge that things are better than they might have been when they are still not great. Let alone to give kudos to government for a job well-done in such a situation.

The Affordable Care Act is an example of where the immediate benefits for most people were hardly noticeable. Most people already had health insurance and for those who didn’t, the benefit of having health insurance is clear only when you are sick and need it. Therefore, requiring everyone to have health insurance, which has a great societal benefit and a long-term personal benefit, can feel, in the short-term, like a burden to those who are healthy. Similarly, the benefit of the ban on denying coverage for a pre-existing condition only becomes evident when one has to change one’s health insurer, which may not happen immediately. Moreover, when it does happen, the ability to get new health insurance is often taken for granted.

Other government benefits that are taken for granted, and only get attention when there is a breakdown or failure, include public safety, roads, and bridges. Even direct government benefits are often taken for granted, including unemployment payments, Social Security and Medicare, public education, student loans for higher education, and the income tax deduction for interest on one’s home mortgage. Surveys indicate that 60% of the people who have taken the home mortgage interest deduction say they have never benefited from a government program. Similarly, many people who have received student loans or unemployment benefits say they have never benefited from a government program. And virtually no one who has attended public schools, driven on our public roads, or felt safe in public recognizes that they have benefited from a government program.

The media should cover government success stories with at least the same level of attention they give to stories of government shortcomings and should reject fear mongering and government bashing that is political and unfounded. The American public needs balanced coverage of government, including reporting of all the good government does. Unfortunately, that is not the case with current media coverage.

You can contribute to achieving a better balance in the media coverage of government by writing letters or emails to the editors of media outlets with stories of government successes and posting them on social media. You can also write to criticize negative stories and the lack of balance and objectivity in the coverage of government. A democracy requires an accurately informed public and the media today are not doing a good job of providing accurate information about the role government plays.

[1]       Cohn, J. Spring 2015. “Why public silence greets government success,” The American Prospect (Much of my post is a summary of this article.)

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