What is the role of government?

When Barack Obama was elected president, he stressed the history-making election victory was “not the change we seek but the opportunity to make that change.” Being elected, it turns out, is only half the battle.

Once elected, officials must legislate and then it’s up to the institutions of government to implement policy.

The role of government and its ability to make a difference in people’s daily lives is not a question the progressive or democratic movement can take lightly. This question was at the heart of the health care reform battle.

Government is not a classless concept. Under capitalism, monopoly corporations dominate government policy and its institutions. U.S. capitalism has developed to such a stage that corporations and finance capital and government are fully integrated into the state. Marxists call it state-monopoly capitalism.

At the level of postal service, sanitation, water, fire, policy and emergency response – the question is not whether government or not. (Although there are battles of privatization and budget cuts.) But on issues big and small, the question is government for whom – Wall Street and multinational corporations or the people?

For 30 years the extreme right wing and Republicans have been doing every thing in their power to dismantle the part of government that addresses people’s needs, and protects them from the worst corporate exploitation and discrimination based on race, gender and sexual orientation.

Grover Norquist, co-author of the Republican “Contract with America” famously said, “My goal is to cut government in half in 25 years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”

The Republicans carried out a strategy over the past 30 years of deliberately running up massive deficits to bankrupt government and force massive cuts in social spending and the elimination of social programs. The Tea Party movement and its “”Contract For America” is a logical extension of this.

At the same time Wall Street, and the Republican ultra right were obliterating corporate regulation and turning government into an instrument for unrestrained exploitation.

Even while the Republicans were calling for an end to big government, they were enriching the military corporations with exploding military budgets, subsidizing corporate profits, aiding outsourcing, bolstering government intrusion into privacy, wiretapping and stomping on basic constitutional rights.

We are entering a new era of potentially widespread reform, with a president who has a different attitude toward the role of government. It’s complicated because the Obama administration reflects the coalition that elected him and there are pressures from all directions – powerful sections of monopoly capital vies with a labor-led mass people’s coalition and movements to seek advantage.

Government is an arena of the class struggle. Whenever government actually serves the interests of people it is the result of bitterly fought battles. This is true at all levels, from federal government to local school councils.

The broad labor-led democratic movements will have to win power at neighborhood, city, state and federal levels to transform government to favor the multi-racial, multi-national people’s interests. Those of us living in Chicago can attest to that. The election of Harold Washington as mayor initiated a brief era of unprecedented reform in city government that is being felt to this day.

One of the biggest hurdles in the health care reform fight was whether people had confidence government could administer health care. With the victory the battle now shifts to implementation.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which administers the programs, have been without an administrator since October 2006. Obama is appointing Dr. Donald Berwick, a professor of pediatrics and health care policy at Harvard medical School, renowned for his efforts to improve the quality and efficiency of health care.

The health care law’s implementation, plus the battle for the role of government, are issues in the fight to extend reform to the public option, Medicare buy-in or a single-payer system and so the current reform must succeed.

People are often of two minds when it comes to government. They appreciate social services and any protections from corporate exploitation, racial or gender discrimination. But people’s faith in government has eroded in the face of the constant anti-government ultra-right ideological barrage, and the actions of the state itself. A recent Pew poll found a majority agreed the government is “so large and powerful that it poses an immediate threat to rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens.”

Ineffective — and repressive — government also erodes confidence. The flood of big money into elections and lobbying, waste and corruption also turns off people. People become cynical when incompetent right wing ideologues are placed in positions of authority ruin and loot departments. The most notorious example is FEMA under “Heck-of-a-job” Brownie, who oversaw the disaster in New Orleans.And when government is repressive — from Supreme Court decisions that take the side of corporations to political prisoners and witchhunts to police brutality and trampling on constitutional rights –those actions also erode confidence.

If we are to embark on an era of reform, the role of government and its ability to effectively serve the interests of the people will be at the heart of the battle.

Photo: People celebrate the election of Barack Obama at the White House. Kevglobal/CC


John Bachtell
John Bachtell

John Bachtell is president of Long View Publishing Co., the publisher of People's World. He is active in electoral, labor, environmental, and social justice struggles. He grew up in Ohio, where he attended Antioch College in Yellow Springs. He currently lives in Chicago.