Commentary: Our government: Not a joke and not our enemy

By Daniel Prtchett

In 1981, Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as president of the United States.  He made his attitude toward the government he was about to lead quite clear when he asserted that government was not the solution to the problems facing the country, “government is the problem.”  He also liked to joke that “the most frightening words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’ “

We have been paying the price for that attitude ever since, never more so than now.  Would anyone – anyone – laugh at that line today?

Ronald Reagan should have known better. 

Coming of age in the 1930s during the Great Depression, he saw firsthand how the federal government of President Franklin Roosevelt helped rescue his own family and the American people from that calamity, and even strengthened the country so that it was able to take on and win the challenge of World War II. 

Reagan voted for FDR four times, and surely was a witness to the reality that without a strong and active federal government, the United States of America would have drowned in the Great Depression and then  been vanquished by Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany.

However, by the time he got active in politics in the 1960s, Reagan had become part of the American right-wing reactionaries who had always been opposed to any kind of active federal government. 

Well-funded by rich and powerful interests (both individual, like Charles Koch, and corporate,  like the National Association of Manufacturers and the oil and gas companies), these right-wingers had embarked on an effective campaign to convince Americans that our freedom, happiness, and prosperity depended upon “free markets.” They were also convinced that the federal government – even though it was based upon the Constitution that begins with the words “we the people” – could not possibly be used to make our lives better but was a dangerous enemy within. 

One of the leaders of these modern right-wing fanatics, Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform (“reform” meaning rich people should pay almost no taxes because they are the source of all virtue and creativity), once said that his goal was to ” shrink the government down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub,” and that he would like to take the country back to where it was in 1900, before Theodore Roosevelt became president.

Think about that and consider what it would mean. 

What would our lives be  without (just to name a few): The Pure Food and Drug Act; the National Park system; the Securities and Exchange Act (which regulated the stock exchange and has helped prevent another Great Depression); the Social Security Act; Medicare; Medicaid; the Clean Air and Clean Water acts?

What would our lives be without today’s Center for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health; or without a federal government strong enough to deal with the economic calamity that is now facing us because of the coronavirus? 

Wouldn’t we be better off if we truly had provided health care coverage for all of our people, regardless of income or even employment, and had not passed a gigantic tax cut two years ago that was skewed to benefit the wealthiest among us?

Wouldn’t we be better off if we had increased funding for public health programs and research instead of trying to cut them, and had not eliminated a national security team that was supposed to study and prepare for threats from possible pandemics?

The people that work for our federal, state, and local governments are not the “deep state” some claim, or faceless bureaucrats, or mindless paper-pushing regulators. They are our public servants, who work for us, often – as we now see so well – at the risk of their lives.

We should salute and thank them just as we do the members of our military.

Perhaps one good thing that can come from this horrible situation is that we can now clearly see the folly of continuing to ignore the clear advice and evidence from our climate scientists about the other danger to our planet – global warming.

If we don’t take action very soon to deal with that threat to our children and grandchildren, then we will truly deserve to live in infamy, and we should never be forgiven.

Daniel Pritchett is a resident of Dover.