Government: Problem or Door

Author: Gary Hart

One of the mysteries of modern times is how the United States went from “ask what you can do for your country” to “government is the problem” in the space of only 20 years.

John Kennedy did not necessarily urge young people to seek public office or even enter government service.  But he did offer the Peace Corps as an example of how, for a year or two, young idealists could make their country better while helping others.

Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, offered a sweeping condemnation of the government he had just been elected to manage.  What he did not do was specify exactly what parts of the government represented “the problem”.  In fact, when he left office eight years later there were still roughly the same number of people working in the national government, state and local governments had increased substantially, and budgets were much larger.

The “government” he saw as “the problem” surely did not include the Department of Defense, which he made larger and much more expensive.  It did not include Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, which the vast majority of Americans had come to depend on, especially in old age, it did not include public lands and resources, it did not include highways and public transportation, it did not include support for education, and on and on.

What conservative critics of government, translating for Mr. Reagan, seemed to indicate as the “problem” were regulations.  Shrinking government, then and now, amounted to deregulation.

Let’s examine that.  Regulations are written by government agencies responsible for carrying out the statutory mandate established and maintained by Congress.  The more Congress is required to spell out the operational details of enacted legislation, the longer the statute.  It is now common for legislation to be a thousand pages or more.  This is Congress providing a mandate to do things and then telling the agencies how to do them.

But the regulatory function of the government deplored by conservatives and denounced by Mr. Trump as a “deep state” is operated by career civil servants, people who develop expertise in the science, operational details, and functions of their responsibilities after years of experience.  As a veteran of two federal agencies, I did not see one instance of a civil servant inventing authority where none existed.  I did see some very bright and dedicated public officials trying to carry out the functions mandated by Congressional action.

And the last time anyone checked, all Members of Congress were elected by a majority of the voters in their States and districts.  And as a Member of Congress, I had little if any experience of my colleagues sitting around, smoking cigars, and saying “Why don’t we invent some laws today.”  Rather, Congress is under constant pressure, including from conservative venues, to “do something” about this problem or that.

This brief essay is not an argument for Big Government.  It is an effort to encourage people to force themselves and their candidates to be specific about exactly which parts of the government they wish to get rid of.  Too often that exercise gets down to “those parts that don’t help me”.

Our government operates according to the will of the majority.  Too many liberals want to drastically shrink the Department of Defense.  Too many conservatives want to shrink the social safety net, at least that part of it that only helps poor people.

Where there is common ground is in the tax structure.  But even there, there is no consensus on taxation of wealth.

This matters because nothing erodes confidence in government, left or right, than a sense that one group or another is getting an unfair break, and any break that I don’t share in is ipso facto unfair.  Fairness is at the heart of Americanism.

And that is the essence of the argument about government, less its size and more whether it deserves our confidence.  It would help if liberals would return to asking what they could do for their country and conservatives would forego blanket attacks on “government” and specify which parts they want to get rid of.

The answer to the rhetorical question…enemy or friend…may lie in those twenty years between “ask what you can do” and “government is the problem.”  Assassination of a president, then two more assassinations, African-Americans beginning to shake off their chains, an untruthful war in Vietnam, women seeking full citizenship, the lengthy bill for the industrial age coming due, then something called Watergate, and so it goes.


10 Responses to “Government: Problem or Door”

  1. H Patrick Pritchard Says:

    Today I cast a ballot for the fifteenth time for President of the United States. Of all the ballots I’ve casted it was the most critical. The ballot I cast in 2008 and 2012 were considered historical yet today’s ballot was more personal to me because it was a vote to preserve a hopeful future for my grandchildren!

    If this is to be a government by and for the people we must take ownership of that government. We have the option of participation or not participating through the franchise of the vote. If you choose not to vote you give your proxy to others. If we profess to be a citizen of this country we cannot divorce ourselves from government, because we are the government. You must own of your government whether you are employed by it or not! The Constitution says it is your government, and you don’t need to be an ‘originalist’ to figure that out!

    How many times on how many occasions have we proven to ourselves that laws and regulations are a necessary function of government? We must declare on an ongoing basis the methodology of determining the value of a law or regulation is through discussion, debate and consensus! Congress rarely does that anymore, but that is why they are elected to office.

    Special interests, lobbyist, big money. big oil, big pharmacies don’t own this government we allow them to! We need to quit treating the idea of government as the problem. We are the problem! Real politics is not labels whether they be Democrat, Republican, Independent, Liberal, Conservative, etc. Real politics is discussing and debating ideas and solutions and finding a consensus on meeting the needs of our citizens.

    Labels or slogans do not make this country great. The effort and good will of its people does!

  2. Michael Says:

    The ‘Ask not’ generation came at the end of the postwar consensus, when New Deal safety-net programs, and regulations on business, were generally accepted by both parties. But resistance to the idea government intervention in the economy never died completely; there was always a strain of conservatism that wanted to return to the economics of the 1920s. In 1964, that strain of ‘movement’ conservatism became a force in the Republican Party when it nominated Goldwater. And although he suffered a humiliating defeat, his ideology eventually took over the Party with Reagan. Stagflation and the Fed-induced recession meant to fight it were mainly responsible for his 1980 landslide.

    The turmoil of the 1960s may have damaged public confidence in government. But black people fighting for their rights, sometimes violently, empowered the race-baiting that conservatives used to build big majorities with working-class whites (a tactic which continues with a vengeance to this day). The notion that ‘those people’, who had been defined as ‘lazy’ and unworthy, were living off the dime of hard-working whites let Reagan, and all conservatives, rail against the government they blamed for enabling it, and got millions to vote against their own economic interests in the process.

    Sadly, a generation of American leaders that began with the selfless idealism of the New Frontier ended not only with abject surrender, but spitefully enjoyed succumbing to it. Maybe the Covid pandemic, and a new generation of young voters who demand more from their leaders, will mark a return to an idealistic belief in government as a force for good. I certainly hope so.

  3. Stephen D. Pillow Says:

    Senator Hart,

    I have been and still am a supporter, adherent, and admirer of you and your ideas and ideals. However, as I read your commentary, I began to realize that many of the “great unwashed”. especially those amongst whom I have lived for years: 1. Would never read your commentary, because it is not specifically addressed to them; 2. Would not understand what you are talking about, even if they did read it, because it is beyond their educational level of comprehension. Ergo your commentary takes its place among the writings of those of the Founding Fathers, which really weren’t directed toward the general population of the Colonies, but rather the political intellectuals of their time.

    My father once called such pieces of commentary “mental masturbation”, because they didn’t actually accomplish anything concrete. They just gave the author a good feeling for having produced it. What is needed at this time in our country’s tumultuous life, is not philosophical treaties upon theoretical politics, but rather concrete suggestions on how to repair the damage done to our beloved country, nation, government, and ourselves. In other words, we need a “How to Fix It Manual”. The publication date of which needed to be a couple of decades ago.


    Have just read back a couple of pieces and my busy on other rather important matters, leads to need for Matters of principle again !

    i agree with this as analysis. Michael is correct that it started way back, before i was born.It was in the mid sixties it seems to date.

    In the Cold War some, like Reagan, who in the FDR years was a Democrat,saw government as akin to the Soviet Union in its desire to interfere. Ironically, Goldwater, apparently dodgy because so right wing, was not an authoritarian Conservative, indeed ended up a libertarian in the mainstream on some issues such as gay rights, and on the left of libertarianism on being very pro abortion rights.

    Reagan was a product of his experience , rather than either a demagogic or hugely ideological politician compared to now, though back then he was, compared to, say Carter.he signed a letter with his predecessors, Carter, Ford, for a degree of gun control, and became a very mainstream figure re gorbacev.

    Now anti govt in the US is rife because some on the left play into the hands of the right or farther conservative fringe, by themselves being too far to the left and being too ideoological.

    For years libertarianism made no sense as it seemed to be, by people involved in politics, so anti govt it mad it, politics, govt, if not obsolete, irrelevant.Left and right are to blame. Govt has too much say in some things, but too little in others. I favour balance, on all issues.

    When the Democrats show how their type of politics respects those who disagree, on issues such as crime, abortion, anarchy, then they, mainstream, mostly, can lecture, the right who have become exrtemely worrying.

    I think our host needs to encourage his politics more in his party.

    I disagree with Stephen here though get it. Seminal polemic is not mental mas….it is wise counsel. But it is the left who need it also….

  5. Brian C McCarthy Says:


    I didn’t live through most of the 20 year period between the advents of JFK and Reagan, but any student of U.S. history and politics can only look at those two decades and ask “what the hell happened?”. You mention the assassinations of JFK, MLK, and RFK, Vietnam, and Watergate. Surely enough to give a collective nation post-traumatic stress disorder on a wide scale and to create distrust of fellow Americans and of individual politicians, but I am not sure those events explain a collective departure from the social liberal post-war consensus and a broad embrace, or at least acceptance, of right wing ideology.

    The Republican Party has, since the 1970s, gradually moved rightward and dragged the country as a whole, and sometimes even the Democrats, rightward with it. At various points one group or another has focused right wing angst in the GOP to drive it further and further from the center. The Moral Majority, the John Birch Society, the Christian Coalition, the Tea Party … now the Proud Boys and QAnon? I shudder to think what group a Republican presidential candidate will have to pay lip service to in 10-15 years if this trend continues.

    While recently reading a biography of Robert Kennedy by Larry Tye, I found myself wondering about that same 20 year period you mention, and what would have happened if Richard Nixon had won in 1960. A small shift of a few thousand votes in a handful of states would have yielded that result. Then what?

    The questions are endless: Bay of Pigs – does Nixon provide the air support Kennedy did not? And does that lead to a Castro ouster or WWIII? How does he handle the Cuban Missile Crisis, if we even get to that point? What does he do with Vietnam, if he comes into office before we are in so deep as we were in 1969? Assuming Lee Harvey Oswald, a disgruntled American leftist, acting alone, assassinated Kennedy as the official history has it, does he take a shot at Nixon as well? Does the paranoiac Nixon ride around in a convertible to give him the shot? In 1964 does JFK, having narrowly lost, run again? Or does LBJ or someone else get the nomination? And who wins a Goldwater-free 1964 election? Clearly the civil rights era plays out very differently with a conservative President in office and no RFK to turn the Justice Department’s power against Jim Crow. Watergate doesn’t happen – but does Nixon get himself in trouble in some other way? A McGovern campaign is far less likely if Vietnam plays out differently. RFK possibly runs against Edward Brooke in Massachusetts to start his political career in 1966, rather than in New York in 1964. Who know what happens to Ted Kennedy if JFK loses 1960 and does not vacate that seat. The presidencies of Ford and Carter disappear from all likelihood. Without Watergate, perhaps Peter Dominick is even re-elected in Colorado in 1974—and then who would I be writing this to? 😉

    I won’t go on, though I could. My point is that the mystery of how we got from JFK’s words to Reagan’s falls in the unpredictable shuffle of cards that is history, and a whole other game can emerge if only one or two cards are moved in the deck.


  6. H Patrick Pritchard Says:

    It has always amazed me why people vote against their own interests! A pandemic is sweeping this country crushing our economy infecting over 8 million of our citizens and killing 222,000 plus of our family members and the Trump Administration and his minions (including Roger Marshall and Ron Estes) refuse to provide real relief to those hit hardest; essential workers, hospitals, doctors, and nurses; local units of government straining to provide essential services to the people; provide for adequate testing; and require preventive measures like masks and social distancing that are proven effective against the virus; and yet at many continue to support Trump and his enablers.

    People in Kentucky are even worse. The polls indicate the citizens of that State are poised to re-elect the Republican Senate Majority leader who has blocked every piece of legislation to aid people in this pandemic and laughed about it on stage during a debate! If that isn’t an in your face gesture and a show of disdain for people suffering, I don’t know what is! People better start fighting for their survival or it will be a winter of major discontent and disaster!

  7. Elizabeth Miller Says:

    Door – let’s break on through to the other side!

  8. H Patrick Pritchard Says:

    I get exasperated with these folks that support Trump because their 401(k) is healthy or these athletes who have it made with a message of “I got mine” now you get yours!” What damn planet are they living on? It was the folks out there that bought tickets to their damn games or sporting events who are suffering from this economic collapse due to the incompetence of the current administration.

    These essential workers who risk their lives everyday who don’t have a 401(k) or a million dollar bank account are barely making rent/mortgage payments and food cost let alone health needs don’t see this strong vibrant America that Nicklaus or Favre are talking about! Those without jobs and are running out of unemployment benefits sure as hell don’t see it.

    This is not an everyman for himself country! Down through ages people have helped and supported each other in times of crisis and have always supported the idea of the common good! What has happened to that America? Have we all gotten so greedy that we can’t see others struggle and pain?

    I don’t care if you’re Democrat or Republican if you really care about the welfare of this country and its people how can you support an administration that could care less about you and whether you die from exposure to a vicious virus; has literally used your tax dollars to increase their own financial benefit; throws innocent children. some just babies, into cages never to see their family again? There was a time in this country when we would be marching in the streets and demanding action from those in Washington who continually lie to us on a daily basis! There should be outrage instead of indifference!

    Are we no longer the country we once were?

  9. Elizabeth Miller Says:


    I’m so nervous about this election. I can’t believe that my guy could actually be the next president so I’m just gonna immerse myself in music until it’s all over…but, your post gives me hope!

  10. Elizabeth Miller Says:

    Hey, if you walk into a bar full of vampires don’t be surprised if you get drunk. Ahem.

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