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Why We Take the Government for Granted

I'm a professor of history, but my articles (like my classes) cover a range of topics, including education, politics, history, and culture.

Demonstrators marching.

Demonstrators marching.

Fixating on the Negative About the Government

Humans expect things to work. In modern industrial societies, things work an overwhelming majority of the time, for most people. The lights come on, water comes out of the tap, roads are paved (or at least drivable), the wifi works, and the shelves at stores are well stocked. The lights turning on after flicking a switch seems as natural as the sun coming up.

The only time that we seem to think about the infrastructure that makes our lives possible is when things don't work. So when the power goes out on occasion, we wonder why it is that the power company is so damn incompetent. Under normal circumstances, we never seem to be thankful for or even acknowledge the existence of the people who keep the system rolling along.

Stability Is Not Necessarily the Norm

This same principle operates with less tangible things that the government is expected to provide. We operate under the assumption that there should not be crime in the streets, that contracts should be honored, and that there should not be war, plague, and famine around the world. Since peace, stability, and fairness are supposed to be the norm, we tend to fixate on the various ways that the government is failing us.

Occasionally, there may be great heroic acts carried out by soldiers, police officers, or firefighters in which we thank government workers for their services. But when it comes to the more day-to-day operations of government carried out by civil servants, we only think about the ways that government falls short.

Why Anti-Government Messages Resonate

This tendency to fixate on the negative helps to explain why Donald Trump was elected president. Like many Republicans, he ran on the principle that government is often more of a problem than a solution. Not only does the government tax too much and impose too many regulations, but it is also filled with people who are incompetent and/or performing jobs that are unnecessary. Large amounts of money are being thrown down the toilet, and all these bureaucrats are primarily concerned with maintaining the bureaucracy.

Because Trump had never worked in government, his anti-government message resonated with voters who were tired of politicians in general. They wanted a non-politician in office who promised to "drain the swamp" and eliminate much of this waste.

Combining Anti-Government and Nationalist Stances

But what distinguished Trump from other Republican candidates was not just his status as the ultimate "anti-politician." He also communicated a nationalist message that was even stronger than his various opponents. In addition to his extra tough stance on immigration, Trump during the campaign was skeptical about or downright hostile toward international agreements of various kinds, whether it be security arrangements like NATO, the climate change agreement, or trade deals like NAFTA and the TPP.

According to Trump, the trade and climate deals were hurting (or would hurt) Americans economically, and security arrangements around the world were either badly negotiated or were causing (or could cause) the United States to waste resources and get tangled up in other nations' problems. With all of the things going wrong in the United States and around the world, this message of "America First" clearly resonated with many frustrated Americans.

Taking the Message Too Far

There is undoubtedly plenty of waste in government at all levels, particularly with the federal government. When you are talking about a budget of roughly four trillion dollars, it is inevitable that some of that money will not be spent very wisely. And the United States, like all countries, should always be evaluating and periodically revisiting treaties, agreements, and arrangements that we have with foreign nations.

The danger is that this anti-government, nationalist message can be taken too far. Just as there are so many underappreciated and unrecognized people out there keeping the lights turning on and the water coming out of the tap, there are civil servants in the United States and around the world doing productive things to make the world more peaceful, orderly, and economically prosperous than it otherwise would be.

Failing to Acknowledge the Good the Government Does

Peace, stability, and goods safely flowing across international borders are not merely the default position. Just as massive layoffs at the power company could make people realize that constant access to electrical power is not a given, shredding international agreements, slashing budgets at federal agencies, and refusing to hire people to fill supposedly useless jobs could make us realize that government was doing more for us than we previously realized.

By fixating so much on the negative, we fail to recognize that our country and the world today, in spite of its many problems, are probably as peaceful and prosperous as they have ever been. And some of this relative peace and prosperity is likely the result of international cooperation and government agencies that did not exist during less peaceful and prosperous times in American and world history.

The Trump Phenomenon Exists Across the Globe

The nativist/nationalist Donald Trump phenomenon is not just an American thing. Throughout Europe, there seems to be a growing number of people turning against the European Union's economic and political arrangement that has evolved since World War 2. This rebellion against globalization and economic cooperation, as I see it, is largely a product of Europe's success. With people increasingly seeing peace and relative prosperity as the default position, they have somewhat forgotten how bad things were in Europe for all the centuries before 1946, centuries in which intense competition and warfare were generally the norm.

Due to our remarkable capacities to forget the past and take things for granted, we humans are continually in danger of repeating the mistakes of our ancestors and failing to recognize the various ways that people of the present are getting things right.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.