In a democracy, government is us

One way to see Biden’s ambitious agenda is that it’s an old guy wise enough to not care a lot about another term , transcending the politically calculating caution more typical of a younger politician.

Call it burnishing his legacy. Call it doing the right thing, as he sees it. Which also happens to be the way most of the rest of us see it. Biden clearly sees victory in the election as a mandate to spend our tax money, our money, yours and mine, the way, in his judgement, we want it spent.

And he’s right. As I read the polls, every one of these expensive programs—covid relief, the American Family Plan, the infrastructure bill, the George Floyd police reform bill— is approved by a substantial majority of the people.

In giving us what we apparently want, Biden is doing exactly what Trumpsters and other conservatives are most afraid of in the entire world: inflicting Big Government on the populace.

They make it sound like an alien Big Brother-style intervention, even (gasp) “socialism.” There are comparisons with FDR’s Depression Era spending and society-shaping changes.

It’s not socialism, of course; except insofar as democracy itself is socialism: we the people collectively organized to do what we think should be done to enhance our lives– more effectively practice life and liberty and pursue happiness.

That government expenditure is an alien intervention in our lives is a misleading, dangerous and self-fulfilling notion.

Trump wanted his signature on the first pandemic relief checks because he wanted people to see him as the source of this largesse. It was an intervention but of the kindly leader sort.

The 1.9 trillion covid relief bill is not a handout. It is us, we the people, giving ourselves something we badly need. Same with other big-ticket programs. . We have the money—it’s our money—and this is how we want to spend it.

That’s what government is, how it’s supposed to work, its reason for being, as we all learned in secondary school from a scenario sketched out in a basic civics class. A bunch of folks get together in the State of Nature (a p re-government situation that probably never actually existed in human history):

Let’s face it, this every-person-for-themselves stuff sucks. We need things like roads, better protection from large predators and pandemics. Hey, maybe even universal healthcare system.”

Sounds good. How do we get all that good stuff?”

How about government?”

Government? You mean where one guy gets to enslave everyone else and make them spend their lives building large pointed objects in the desert?”

No, not that kind. The kind where we sign a contract to cooperate in securing the benefits of cooperation”

Thus is born government of, by and for the people. In a big country it may be cumbersome, it may be inefficient, but it’s all ours. And our welfare is its only legitimate reason to exist.

And the much-maligned “big government”? Just we the people getting big enough in our behalf when needed, to do what needs to be done (survive the Great Depression, fight WW2, fight a pandemic).

There really is no other logic to democratic government. Government is us.

If many of us have lost track of that logic, if government no longer feels like ours, there are reasons. Government should increase happiness, prosperity, but salaries have gone down since the 60s. We end up fighting wars most of us disapprove of. We give tax breaks to the wealthiest. Healthcare has improved but it’s still the most expensive in the world, many millions without it.

If government is like a dog we have on a leash, that leash has gotten too long. (To jump metaphors, there’s too much slippage in the clutch.) There’s a sense that we’ve lost control. We need to close close up loopholes such as the filibuster, Senate apportionment, Supreme Court appointment procedure, the Electoral College and other glitches leading to virtual minority rule. The constitution it turns out is not infallible.

But if the leash seems too long, we need not to forget that there is a leash. My impression is that to many of us the leash feels shorter with Biden’s agenda, his sense of doing the majority’s bidding.

Democracy is just an ideal, but it’s one that has endured at least in principle for almost 250 years. It gives us a shot. But only if we stay in touch with the idea itself: government is not an alien intervention. It is us.


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