Government is in deep disrepute in the United States. Dismayed by gridlock and scandal, and prodded by endless right-wing anti-Washington invective, public faith in government reaches perpetual new lows. Which is why it’s so remarkable and refreshing to see Hillary Clinton sticking up for the old-fashioned notion that acting through government, we can achieve great things by working together.
Clinton’s defense of government is in part a reaction to Donald Trump. Political scientists Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann have argued that Trump’s rise is the logical conclusion of the Republican Party’s three-decade war on government. “[T]he dysfunction of the Republican Party, [. . .] its obstructionism, anti-intellectualism, and attacks on American institutions were making responsible governance impossible,” Ornstein and Mann write. “The rise of Trump completes the script[.]”
In resisting the mean-spirited nihilism of the Trump campaign, Clinton has emphasized the benefits of unity over the pitfalls of Trumpian divisiveness. And by arguing that we are greater than the sum of our parts, Clinton has implicitly pushed back against thirty years of GOP anti-institutionalism and made a positive case for robust government.
Clinton’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention was laden with tributes to the virtues of collective action. Arguing that when we must “work together so we all can rise together[,]” Clinton reminded us that “[o]ur country’s motto is e pluribus unum: out of many, we are one.” The message of her 1996 book “It Takes a Village,” Clinton explained, was that “[n]one of us can raise a family, build a business, heal a community or lift a country totally alone.”
It’s a message Democrats have been honing for years. In 2012, video of then-Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren’s living room meet-and-greet went viral, where she argued that we all rise together. “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own,” Warren argued. Success is built on the back of communal goods like public roads, protections of property, and publicly educated workers.
That same summer, President Obama tried to echo Warren. “If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help,” Obama argued. “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” Republicans treated Obama’s somewhat clumsy case for communal success as an epic gaffe, spending an entire day of their 2012 convention insisting that “We Built It.”
But Clinton hasn’t shied away from making the case for an interconnected American destiny. Faced with Trump’s “I alone” strongman act, Clinton has lifted “stronger together” beyond a mere slogan, proclaiming it to be “a guiding principle for the country we’ve always been and the future we’re going to build.”
Her policy priorities back this up. Clinton aims to create an “economy that works for everyone, not just those at the top.” To Clinton, public infrastructure investment has the awesome capability to “not only create jobs today, but lay the foundation for the jobs of the future.” By pursuing debt-free college, a livable minimum wage, a full-employment economy, and tax hikes on millionaires, Clinton expresses a profound faith in the ability of government to shape economic life.
And rightfully so. The mixed economy is the key to American prosperity, with government and the private sector working in tandem to create broad-based and sustained growth. Government produces public goods like health, roads, infrastructure, education, and research, laying the groundwork for dynamic markets to monetize and innovate off of public investment.
And contrary to conservative revisionism, an active government has always been part and parcel of American history. From Hamilton’s national bank and absolution of state debts, to Jefferson’s advocacy for government land grants to all citizens, to FDR’s New Deal adoption of modern social insurance, government has been a force in structuring the economy throughout our history. Government has also been an ever more diligent steward of freedom, liberating minorities from discrimination and protecting workers from the tyranny of excess employer power. Government has thus created a richer and more meaningful American freedom.
In the United States, we too often fall into the false belief that a free and productive economy is a natural occurrence. This takes for granted the role of government in setting the ground rules for the economy: the antitrust regulations that preserve competition, the property rights that promote innovation, and the government investments that produce a healthy, knowledgeable labor force, among many others.
Clinton and the Democrats are reminding us of this. Contemporary problems like rising inequality aren’t hopeless laws of nature, but can be tamed by smart, determined government action.
The specter of Trumpism has made Democrats bolder. If Trump is the end result of the conservative campaign against government, Democrats have responded by doubling down on the virtues of community and the common good. When confronted with a candidate manifestly unfit to serve, Democrats have increasingly embraced their role as proud, effective managers of government to meet the needs of the twenty-first century.