How liberals and progressives can critique government without undermining its importance

After writing last week’s email on why we shouldn’t be using the word “taxpayer,” I cringed at the flood of tweets pouring out about wasted “taxpayer dollars” in Afghanistan. Like this one from Warren Gunnells, majority staff director for Sen. Bernie Sanders:

“The only thing that we ‘accomplished’ by going into Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan was to put trillions of taxpayer dollars into the military industrial complex and destroy millions of lives – period, full stop. It’s time to stop repeating the same mistakes over and over again.”

I agree with the sentiment. But there’s that dirty word again.

It also got me thinking about other ways progressives undermine our own collective vision and goals. As we wrote last year in a history of the decades-long conservative attack on government, “Progressives rarely talk about government successes and progress except when under attack. The language we use is often tinged with anti-government attitudes.”

We rarely claim innovative things like the iPhone, space travel, and vaccines as public successes. (Really, the tech powering smart phones—GPS, touch screens, the Internet—were developed with public funding.)

We rarely talk about teachers, janitors, sanitation workers, and other public employees as the superheroes that they are. Every day—every minute—there is a public employee somewhere doing something amazing. We too often let conservatives fearmonger about “rich, powerful unions” and “pension millionaires” without firing back.

When we do talk about government, we “other” it by talking about it in the third person. As our executive director Donald Cohen put it in his book Dismantling Democracy, “Too often we talk about government failure in a way that subtly reinforces the separation between us (the people) and the government institutions that act on our behalf.”

(By the way, Donald’s new book [coauthored with Allen Mikaelian] is called The Privatization of Everything, and it comes out on November 2nd. You can pre-order it here or request it from your local bookstore.)

Meanwhile, we leave the idea of public—institutions, services, goods, life—undefended. Conservatives soapbox about markets and free enterprise every chance they get. We don’t talk enough about the values of public and democracy.

Yes, there are legitimate reasons to critique the government. But, as Donald writes, “We must figure out how to talk about government failures and corruption without reinforcing negative attitudes toward the idea of government and public solutions.”

For example, framing demands against police violence as reimagining “public safety” upholds the idea that crime is a public issue—not just one of criminal justice. That it’s public means it involves economic inequality, systemic racism, mental health, public education, etc.

That’s just one example. There are plenty more ways we can be talking about government to further—rather than hinder—our collective vision and goals. (Topos Partnership has done great work on this.)

The right wing has been intentionally and comprehensively attacking the idea of public for decades. It’s high time we fight back.

Photo by Geoff Livingston.