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Biden must rebrand government as a force for the people

Biden must rebrand government as a force for the people
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Four decades ago, President Reagan stood on the steps of the U.S. Capitol and declared in his first inaugural address, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” 

This famous line captured the GOP’s longstanding efforts to frame government as bloated, corrupt and even evil — reflecting a distrust of government dating back to our country’s founding and long before.

These attitudes — echoed and amplified across conservative media in recent years by lawmakers, advocates, and influencers — have crystallized into a deep-seated resentment, now hostility, toward government, as manifest in the Jan. 6 attack on Congress. Progressives unwittingly fuel these efforts with talk of a broken government — even as they advocate for government-led solutions to our society’s challenges. So-called objective members of the news media fall into this trap too. Like many of us, reporters tend to focus on problems rather than solutions and conflict rather than agreement.

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It’s no surprise, then, that we Americans have deeply negative views of government. Research conducted by my former employer, the FrameWorks Institute, shows that we see government as “just politics” or a “bumbling bureaucracy.” We don’t understand how it works or its mission and purpose and we often see ourselves as consumers of government services paid for with taxpayer dollars rather than as citizens in a democratic republic.

Our republic is, to be sure, deeply flawed and in dire need of repair. Universal suffrage is young, dating only back to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And it’s incomplete — just ask the 700,000+ residents of Washington, D.C., a majority of whom are Black.

The structure of election processes and of our government favors less populous and more rural states, sometimes thwarting the will of the majority. As a result of that, the corrupting influence of money in politics and other factors, public policy often fails to reflect public will. Denial and dysfunction in government pose grave and rising threats to our country.

But our government, grounded in the world’s oldest working constitution, has also made great strides over two and a half centuries and overcome threats even greater than today’s. In the last century, it has advanced equity, protected the environment, reduced disease, expanded access to health care, curb violence against women and much more.

We inaugurated our 46th president after an election that has been called a “triumph” of democracy. A record number of ballots were cast and the voter turnout rate was the highest in modern history — an achievement all the more remarkable given that it took place amid a pandemic and as the incumbent president actively tried to suppress the vote.

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Ensuring our republic’s survival is more difficult if it is under constant rhetorical attack.

To restore faith in our government, we need to remind people of its role — to protect and promote the common good — and the unique value of its services and programs, according to Demos, a progressive think tank. 

We also need to explain how we work together to create and sustain government and use ownership language to help people understand that our government belongs to us — and that we have the power to shape it through our civic actions.

The good news, according to Demos, is that “the public is open to — in fact hungry for — a more mission-driven, ‘common good’ sense of the public sector and its role.”

But they warn such an awakening won’t happen on its own. To ensure all people have access to health care, receive a quality education, are treated fairly in our justice system and are able to vote, we need to tell a different story about government. If we frame it as the problem, it won’t become the solution.

We need to show that we can use our government for good and that it’s the only solution to our most daunting challenges, such as climate change. We need to frame government workers not as middling bureaucrats or members of the so-called ‘deep state’ but as civil servants who work in the public interest regardless of who is in the White House. And we need to highlight not only the political bomb throwers but also those lawmakers who quietly work together to keep our government running. They do exist.

We need to take our cue not from Reagan but from John F. Kennedy. 

“Ask not what your country can do for you,” he famously said in his inaugural address, “but what you can do for your country.”

Fortunately, Biden — a veteran of government — seems to agree.

“The work of the moment and the work of the next four years must be the restoration of democracy, of decency, honor, respect for the rule of law — just plain, simple decency,” he told the nation as the Capitol was engulfed by those he referred to as "domestic terrorists." “It’s about solving problems, looking out for one another, not stoking the flames of hate and chaos.”

Let’s hope he echoes these refrains in the years to come.

Allison Stevens is a writer, editor and public relations strategist. She can be reached at www.allisonstevens.com and allison.stevens@gmail.com.