Ronald Reagan, like his predecessors Abe Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower, was an iconic Republican President. He was called the “Great Communicator,” and some good things definitely happened on his watch, like tax reform and the decline of the Soviet Union. But Reagan did more than anyone before Donald Trump to dumb down his party and lower the level of political discourse. It started during his campaign against Jimmy Carter with perhaps the most simple-minded thing Reagan ever said: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the Government, and I'm here to help.” Huh? He was talking about the Government that directed the victories in World War II. It’s the Government that built the interstate highway system. It’s the Government that lifted seniors out of poverty with Social Security and Medicare. It’s the Government that did its best, until Reagan came along, to keep our food safe and our air and water clean.
Just think how far the Republican party has fallen. Lincoln freed the slaves. Teddy Roosevelt busted the trusts and expanded the national park system. Richard Nixon, for all the scandal that led to his resignation, at least established relations with China and presided over the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. Fast forward to Trump. He just tried to finish what Reagan started: the crippling of the U.S. Government’s ability to improve American lives. Sad.
What do Republicans stand for these days? They want to lower everyone’s taxes and reduce Government regulation. That’s about it. Yes, they want to protect your freedom, but that mainly means your freedom to carry assault rifles and run amuck without following pesky rules, like wearing a mask during a pandemic.
Ok, I’m oversimplifying. I’m doing exactly what I’m complaining about. It’s hard not to do that. Republicans do it, and so do Democrats. Bernie Sanders rose to prominence by shouting about “billionaires and big corporations” that are ruining America. Now I’m a fan of Bernie and think he’s basically right. But he does, like most politicians, get attention by reducing complex issues to simple slogans. Not all billionaires and corporations are bad. Think of the good that Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg are doing with their billions. And while the richest among us should be paying much higher taxes, as even billionaire Warren Buffett has declared, not every fat cat is a heartless evildoer.
Bernie became his own worst enemy long ago by calling himself a democratic “socialist” and steadfastly refusing to disavow that description. Gulp. That plays right into the worst aspect of political rhetoric: labeling and name-calling. It’s bad enough to be called a “liberal.” Right-wingers made that a dirty word decades ago. But “socialist,” which is often mistakenly considered a synonym for “Communist,” is even worse. And now Republicans are tarring all their opponents with that label. Bernie is a socialist. Obama was a socialist. Biden is a socialist. It’s as if there are no differences among Democrats, and every Democrat would have the Government own every company in the country. It’s ridiculous and false rhetoric. Left-leaning Democrats are trying to avoid that trap by harking back to the early 20th Century and calling themselves “progressive,” but Republicans will try to make that a dirty word too.
Oversimplifying issues often gets Democrats into trouble. Whoever first uttered the phrase “defund the police” didn’t do the progressive cause any favors. Those words turned the absolutely vital goal of police reform into a seemingly radical and dangerous notion. Suddenly the Republicans could accuse Biden and every other Democrat of wanting to “defund the police.” How many Democrats have actually used that slogan? I can’t prove it, but I’m sure that the phrase has been said more often by Republicans—in their attacks on Democrats. I bet “defund the police” has been tossed out more often on Fox News than on MSNBC.
So, let’s get real. The world is a more complicated place than you ever hear about in a political attack ad. Does it make any sense to be anti-Government? How could we do without it? Every society needs rules and regulations, law and order. Only the most crazed libertarian would want to take away the stoplights on our city streets. The difficult ongoing task of our democracy is to decide what laws, what rules and what regulations are best. Sure, some Government regulations turn out to be stupid and onerous and need to be repealed. But many others save lives. If opponents of regulation always got their way, we wouldn’t have seat belts in our cars, and we would still have toxic lead in our gasoline and paint. The enactment of sensible, life-saving rules does not make us a “nanny state.” It’s important to have continuing debate between Republicans, who favor less regulation, and Democrats, who are always looking for more things to fix. Striking the right balance is the goal. But when you take a wrecking ball to the Government, as Trump has done, trying to undo every regulation Obama put in, you’re just a destroyer of human progress.
If the current U.S. Government is falling down in its mission to improve the lives of the American people—and it definitely is falling down on the job—it’s because our political system is corrupt and broken. Both Republicans and Democrats are more beholden to their campaign donors than to the public. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that big corporations now own the Government. They certainly have the greatest influence over what laws get passed and how regulations get written. Campaign finance reform, often attempted but never successful, should be one of our highest priorities.
My most famous college professor, John Kenneth Galbraith, chronicled the rise of giant enterprises and argued that a strong Government and sturdy labor unions were needed as a counterweight to keep corporations from having too much power. His work still rings true. While Uncle Sam has been asleep at the switch, tech companies have exploded in size and impact on our lives—crushing and swallowing small businesses and going almost unchecked by regulation. Corporations like Alphabet (the parent of Google), Amazon and Facebook have put us under constant surveillance, monitoring our every move. They take away our privacy and sell information about us to the highest bidder. The development of artificial intelligence is proceeding with almost no oversight, and who knows where that will lead? Shouldn’t the public have a say in how technology affects our lives?
Congress is only beginning to hold hearings on what to do about Big Tech. During her unsuccessful Presidential campaign, Elizabeth Warren talked about regulating tech companies more tightly and even breaking them up, àla that great Republican Teddy Roosevelt. We’ll see if she has Joe Biden’s ear during the coming Administration.
As for today’s Republicans, their relentlessly anti-Government, anti-regulation blather leaves me cold. They may be content with being governed by Alphabet, Apple and the billionaires of Wall Street. I would prefer to have Uncle Sam wake up from his slumber and protect my interests.