Democrats today, for the most part, balance between two slightly competing ideas: that government is part of the solution, while still acknowledging that it can be part of the problem. Meanwhile, they're up against a long-running Republican messaging campaign against "big government."
The concept of big government goes back to around the beginning of the 20th century. Princeton historian Julian Zelizer traces the idea to the Wilson administration and its initiatives, including the creation of the Federal Reserve.
"Woodrow Wilson, who is still conservative by modern liberal standards, does allow for a pretty dramatic expansion of government," Zelizer tells Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered.
The real turning point, though, was President Franklin D. Roosevelt, he says.
"That's the president who not only accepts and pushes for the growth of government, but tells the American people that it's absolutely essential that we have a government deal with the very big social problems that we faced as a nation," he says. "And by 1936, when he runs for re-election for the first time, FDR gives a full-throated defense ... of this idea that government is a positive part of American society."
Ending An Era
For most of the 20th century, Democrats saw government more or less as the main problem-solver. President Clinton broke that idea in 1996, with his State of the Union address.
"The era of big government is over," he announced.
Zelizer says President Obama is a product of the "post-Jimmy Carter, post-Bill Clinton Democratic Party."
"For all of the talk from Republicans of this being a quasi-socialistic administration, nothing could be further from the truth," Zelizer says. "If you just listen to what he says, look at the kinds of policies he proposes, he is very skeptical of government."
At The Associated Press luncheon in April, Obama said he had "never been somebody who believes government can or should try and solve every problem."
What's The Message?
A Fox News poll in July reported 64 percent of voters say "government is the problem" in regards to the current state of the economy. Zelizer says that's indicative of the success of the conservative movement in shifting the debate. Conservatives also got a boost in the aftermath of the '60s and '70s, he says, when Democrats were blamed for the problems during those years.
"[Republicans have] made an argument that has been more compelling to many Americans than what Democrats have supported," Zelizer says.
Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who will speak at the Democratic convention this week, says the benefits of government are not always cited by its critics.
"People assume that government is this massive, bloated, choking, amorphous thing that takes people's tax money and doesn't give them anything in return," she tells NPR's Raz. "People don't see what government provides."
Take food safety regulation, clean drinking water or electricity, Granholm says.
"People don't understand government plays a role in all of that, but because it's unseen and it's assumed, that's not part of the positive side of the conversation," she says.
'An Uphill Battle'
Granholm says government has to be part of a solution for certain things, including the current economic crisis.
"If you have purely a hands-off, laissez-faire approach for addressing the economic challenges America's changing, then basically you're throwing in the towel," she says. "You are aiding and abetting the offshoring of jobs to countries that are very aggressive in poaching jobs."
In the end, government "must" have a role, Granholm says.
Democrats have been criticized for not effectively arguing for the role of government, though. E.J. Dionne, opinion writer for The Washington Post and commentator for NPR, argued in a column in June that "government is the solution." He took Democrats to task for not owning that idea.
"It is an uphill battle to make the argument because the other side is so deeply permeated into our pores as a result of the very effective messaging that has been done," Granholm says.
She says that effective as the message may be, disdain for government is "a curious form of self-loathing."
"How can you hate government, which is the product of democracy and a constitutional structure that is revered?" Granholm asks. "How can you hate the service that government provides but love America and love democracy?"
When government is slashed, she argues, it becomes less able to meet the efficiency standards of the private sector. Without investing in new technology for permitting, for example, she says the process will continue to be painfully long with less streamlining between state and local levels.
"It's certainly been a self-fulfilling prophecy," she says. "In the shrinkage of government, they have disabled the effectiveness of government in many places."
GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
All this weekend on the program, we've been asking people in America about government, including this question.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Is government part of the problem, is it part of the solution?
RAZ: And here's what we heard in San Francisco, Omaha, Houston and Pittsburgh.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Government would be part of the solution. Politics is part of the problem.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Right now, it's probably part of the problem, and with both parties.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Both ways. I think it is a problem in some ways and in other ways.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: I think it could be both. It really depends.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Oh, that's a tough one. It goes both ways.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: I'm going to say solution. I have a faith on them, so better to be.
RAZ: Now, when pollsters ask this question, the overwhelming answer is that it's part of the problem. Yesterday, we mentioned a poll taken in July by Fox News. It showed two-thirds of Americans agree with that view. But how do most people think about government? Highways? Power Lines? The Internet? The battle against al-Qaida? Well, in those four cities, we also asked that question.
What does government mean to you?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: TSA.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #6: I got a speeding ticket.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: DMV.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: The Social Security office.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: The police, the fire, emergency-type people.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #7: Roads and security.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: Defense, essential social services, wasteful programs.
RAZ: Last week, it was Republicans who argued that government is part of the problem at their convention. And we explored that idea on the program yesterday. This week, Democrats will attempt to explain how government could be part of the solution. And that's our cover story today: making the case for the government.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: What most of us think of as government - or big government - really goes back to around the beginning of the 20th century, says Princeton historian Julian Zelizer, with the administration of Woodrow Wilson.
JULIAN ZELIZER: He clearly is supporting more government as part of American life. His administration includes things like the creation of the Federal Reserve. And so Woodrow Wilson, who was still conservative by modern liberal standards, does allow for a pretty dramatic expansion of government. But it's FDR in the 1930s. That's the turning point. That's the president who not only accepts and pushes for the growth of government but tells the American people it's absolutely essential that we have a government deal with the very big social problems that we faced as a nation. And he just rebuffed his critics.
When they argued government was bad, he argued government was essential and that we had an obligation to use government to deal with the kinds of inequality, unemployment and social ills that this nation was facing. And by 1936 when he runs for re-election for the first time, FDR gives a full-throated defense of this idea that government is a positive part of American society.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT: Fellow Americans, your government is still on the same side of the street with the Good Samaritan and not with those who pass by on the other side.
RAZ: And at least for Democrats, that was, more or less, the view of government as the main problem solver for most of the 20th century. Right up until Bill Clinton formally broke with that idea in 1996 in his State of the Union address.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: The era of big government is over.
ZELIZER: President Obama is very much a product of the post-Jimmy Carter, post-Bill Clinton Democratic Party. For all the talk from Republicans of this being a quasi-socialistic administration, nothing could be further from the truth in that if you just listen to what he says and look at the kinds of policies he proposes, he's very skeptical of government.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I have never been somebody who believes that government can or should try to solve every problem. Some of you know my first job in Chicago was working with a group of Catholic Churches that often did more good for the people in their communities than any government program could.
ZELIZER: And he's trying to use it in strategic ways, but he's always putting handcuffs on the programs that he even creates. And I think it's a pretty consistent part of who Obama is. He certainly would not offer the kind of robust defense you heard from FDR in the '30s or even Ted Kennedy in 1980 when he challenged Jimmy Carter during the primaries and made a famous convention speech.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
SENATOR TED KENNEDY: Our cause has been, since the days of Thomas Jefferson, the cause of the common man and the common woman.
ZELIZER: Where he really said Democrats had to stick to their principles, and part of that was using government for the common good.
RAZ: But when people hear the word government, they don't - today don't necessarily think of those things. According to a Fox News poll taken earlier this summer, two-thirds of Americans say government is the problem.
ZELIZER: Look, part of it was the conservative movement since the '70s has been very successful in shifting national debate. They've made an argument that has been more compelling to many Americans than what Democrats have supported. And so that's part of it. And part of it was just the aftermath of the 1960s and '70s when Democrats had still been in power and there were so many problems that Democrats were blamed for the problems, you know, rather than other forces such as the global economy. And the convergence of the conservative movement and the crisis of the '60s and '70s left a space for conservatives to make this argument successfully.
RAZ: Julian Zelizer. He teaches history and public policy at Princeton. Democrats today for the most part balance between two slightly competing ideas that government is part of the solution but with a public acknowledgement that it can be part of the problem. And for former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm, who will speak at the Democratic convention this week, there's a reason why.
JENNIFER GRANHOLM: People assume that government is this massive, bloated, choking, amorphous thing that takes people's tax money and doesn't give them anything in return. People don't see what government provides. They don't understand that when you taste your food at a restaurant, somebody has made sure that food is not going to poison you when you buy it in the stores. When you drink your water that you have clean water. It's a given when you turn on the lights that the electricity comes on. People don't understand government plays a role in all of that. But because it's unseen and assumed, that's not part of the positive side of the conversation.
RAZ: President Reagan famously said government is part of the problem, which has become a mantra for many conservatives, and we've been hearing it this past week at the Republican convention. How is government the solution in your view?
GRANHOLM: Well, first of all, as I say, there's only certain things that governments can do, especially as this conversation is unfolding, about the economy. And if you have purely a hands-off laissez-faire approach for addressing the economic challenges America's facing, then basically you're throwing in the towel. You're waving the white flag. You are aiding and abetting the offshoring of jobs to countries that are very aggressive in poaching jobs.
So we can decide that government is part of the problem and that we don't have any role in it. But truly, we will continue to see the structural changes to our economy because government must have a role. Whether it's in educating or in providing infrastructure help or in nurturing the sectors where America can be competitive, there is a role for government in all of that.
RAZ: E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and an analyst here at NPR wrote a column earlier this summer and it was titled "Government is the Solution." And in that column, he went after Democrats for running away from this idea that government can be part of the solution. He essentially argued that Democrats have essentially accepted this argument that government is part of the problem.
GRANHOLM: It is an uphill battle to make the argument because the other side is so deeply permeated into our pores as a result of the very effective messaging that has been done, but it is such a curious form of self-loathing that that notion represents. And what I mean by that is that how can you hate government, which is the product of democracy and a constitutional structure that is revered? How can you hate the service that government provides but love America and love democracy? It is such an interesting schism.
Yes, there are problems with government like there are problems everywhere. Let's fix those problems. But to throw government out when government is us - it's not just something that's distant, it's all of us - that to me is an interesting psychological challenge.
RAZ: If the term government were a brand, it would be a brand in which the company overseeing that brand would have no control over it because government means so many different things to so many different people, right?
So I'm sure when you were governor, people would say, look, I'm a small business owner and I've got to deal with all these permits and all this red tape, and I've got to go to all these offices, you know, every time I want to hire somebody or do something with my business. And so I wonder whether you can understand that, why some people are skeptical.
GRANHOLM: Totally. Oh, yeah. Absolutely. And it's such an interesting strategy on the part of the Republicans, honestly, because they want to slash and slash and slash government. And therefore government is in less of a position to be able to provide the quick, rapid, seamless service that people have come to expect from the private sector.
RAZ: You're arguing that Republicans have deliberately made government less efficient because they want people to think that government is inefficient?
GRANHOLM: Well, it's certainly been a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the shrinkage of government, they have disabled the effectiveness of government in many places.
GRANHOLM: For example, in permitting. I mean, just look at those issues. If you have eliminated the ability to invest in streamlining permitting, which means the investment in technology to be able to do that, then your permitting systems will continue to be antiquated. People will have to go to a secretary of state's office to stand in line to get their driver's license rather than doing it online and easily. People will be frustrated by how many places they've got to go to get a permit because there's been no ability to have state, local and federal permitting systems marry because the investment has gone away.
And so that's one of the ways, I think, that there's been an effective strategy. Whether it's a byproduct or an original intent to do it that way, it's been effective on the part of the Republicans.
RAZ: That's Jennifer Granholm, the former governor of Michigan and host of "The War Room with Jennifer Granholm" on Current TV. Jennifer Granholm, thanks so much.
GRANHOLM: You bet.
RAZ: And if you missed our look at government as part of the problem on the program yesterday, you can hear it on our podcast. We post it around 7 p.m. Eastern at npr.org/weekendatc.
Coming up on the program, the man who's been fired, hired or promoted by the New England Patriots 29 times, plus the secret world of yoloing. It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.