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Ruminations of a Feisty Old Quaker

Of The People, By The People, and For The People

I am a former government worker.

That's not a confession, that's a point of pride. I was a librarian; I worked for a county library system. For eighteen years, I helped people find information they needed in a collection of books and journals and other documents which they owned but did not know how to search properly. I was their search engine. They owned the buildings the collection was housed in, too; it was part of my job to make sure the buildings were quiet, well kept, and reasonably accessible to their owners. The community thought what I did was helpful enough and important enough that they were willing to tax themselves to pay me to do it. I accepted this with gratitude, and I always tried to do the job they had entrusted to me as well as possible.

My wife was a government worker, too. She ran the medical lab in a small student health center on a state university campus. Her paycheck came partly from student tuition and partly from the taxpayers; in return for that paycheck, she helped keep the students healthy and the university - which the taxpayers owned and the students paid to attend - protected from outbreaks of communicable disease.

That is what government really is, at least in this country: people providing useful services to the community they live in. In order to assure that these services continue, the community taxes itself to pay the people who provide them, and to purchase the equipment and build the buildings and maintain the land necessary for those services to be properly carried out. That's what taxes are for. That is all they are for.

Unfortunately, that is not the way too many people view government today. In a reversal of its real role - providing solutions to community problems - government has been defined, not as the solution, but as the problem. In place of Abraham Lincoln's "government of the people, by the people, and for the people," the country has accepted Ronald Reagan's "the scariest words in the English language are 'I'm from the government, I'm here to help you.'" These myths have been promulgated by a few people, primarily wealthy people, who want to be able to stop paying taxes and to eliminate the regulations that prevent them from using the money they save that way to do whatever their current whim might be, irregardless of whom or what that whim might harm. They have succeeded in selling these myths to the voters by appealing to the greedy streak within each of us: eliminate government and you, too, will be wealthy and can follow your whims. That false promise is today far too widely accepted as reality.

What this means is that, as Progressives trying to win elections, we are consistently talking about the wrong things. Progressives don't lose because people disagree with our positions on the issues; polls show that most people actually agree with us about the changes that need to take place in society. We lose elections because people don't see government as a path to those changes, but as an obstacle to them. We are talking about eliminating corruption in government to people who have been taught to believe that government is corruption; we are talking about wasted taxes to people who think that taxes are waste.

We are talking about what government should be doing, to people who have become convinced that government shouldn't be doing anything at all.

Here is our problem: we have been campaigning on positions when we should be campaigning on definitions. If we can't take back the definitions, it doesn't matter what our positions are. Positions, sadly, have become irrelevant to current political discourse. How government should fulfill its role is not something that can be intelligently discussed until it is understood that government actually has a role, and that this role is relevant to voters' problems.

How can we do this? I don't have a complete answer, but I think I know a place to start. I think those of us who have been government workers, and have been paid by taxes, need to be far more open and proud of what we have done than we have been in the recent past. I think voters need to see their government, not as a faceless bureaucracy, but as the faces of their friends and neighbors and family members. I think they need to see their taxes, not as money stolen by the government, but as money going to those friends and neighbors and family members to pay for the services that they provide.

Here is a concrete suggestion: a weekly series, in newspapers or on television or somewhere prominent on the web, consisting of interviews with government workers. Cops, librarians, meteorologists, park rangers, garbage collectors, public school teachers - anyone. All levels of government - city, county, state, and federal -should be represented, and all levels of work, from the superintendents of our National Parks right down to the folks that hold the signs for one-way detours around road work. The common denominators should be a passion for the work they do, an ability to articulate what they do and why they do it, and a paycheck that comes from taxes.

We could call it "I Am Government."

Let's reclaim Lincoln's great words. Government of the people, by the people, and for the people is not just a phrase in a history book. It is us.
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