What We Talk About When We Talk About Government

I don’t think that word means what you think it means. On every form of online communication,  a similar sentiment is echoed: the government is bad. It’s going to take your rights, purposefully misinform the electorate, or otherwise subvert all that is wholesome. What exactly does one mean by “government”? The department of homeland security? The interns on the hill? Post office workers? Once again, I find myself  asking the black hole of internet readers to take a digital stroll with me to define our terms.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu addresses a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in WashingtonFirst, let’s talk about the basic idea of a governing  body. There exist problems that must  be solved collectively. Walking outside with a portable filter won’t improve the air one breathes; individuals, organizations, and groups of individuals all experience problems that  they wish to be remedied, and policy is what we call the solutions. Government is the name we  give to the  agencies, institutions, policy makers, and everything else that goes into the process of hypothesizing, enacting, and reviewing these solutions.

There are also aspects of the political infrastructure that need to be reconsidered; I’d argue that the electoral college needs to be updated to suit modern technology. There exists a system in which we can address problems collectively and  discuss each policy alternative … it’s called government. Anyone can point to an example of an unscrupulous elected official. The tragic situation of the water in Flint, MI was entirely avoidable had the Snyder administration appropriately tested the water flowing from the Flint River, or, once the corrosive nature of the water was demonstrated, immediately move to rectify the  situation. This is a case of giving preference to ideology (cutting corners to save money) over the well being of the citizenry.

Starting from scratch – dissembling the current system to start a completely new one –  is downloadimpossible a this point, and those who want to do so are not considering their privileged perspective. What happens to the environment, those in poverty, scientific discovery, the upkeep of our infrastructure, or  any other issue above the individual level while anarchists live out their revolutionary fantasy? Those who depend on the public sector don’t have the luxury to burn it to the ground. 

Government is the idea of a system that brings together diverse groups and interests; it’s as flawed as are the humans who participate in it. Special interest has grown a negative connotation, but for example, while”dirty” companies aggressively lobby congress for less regulation, so do environmentally conscious groups with equal fervor. Groups representing a myriad of stances are taking turns at the bat.

download-1Meanwhile, all elected officials need to  focus on reelection to keep their jobs, a desire not solely based in self-interest. Politicians carefully build relationships and goodwill with their peers and it can take years to actually get a policy through congress. Because we live in a  democracy that is meant to be representative, appealing to the lowest common denominator of an electorate builds a strong block upon which anyone willing  to appeal to the  fears of the angry, uneducated, xenophobic, racist, sexist, and impassioned voters can build their political career. For every politician that benefits from an under-informed, dispassionate electorate, there is another trying to unseat him or her who would love a savvy, engaged populous. This brings up a question of ethics — should the governor of a very conservative state vote according to his or her constituents (representative democracy) concerning issues of equal rights, or vote according to their conscience (doing what is right)?

America is a complex, diverse country with problems that have  no easy answer. One could argue that it’s amazing that we agree on anything long enough to make policies; the Texan trucker and San Diego-based yoga instructor have very little common ground, but both have a vote. Government isn’t a monster lurking under children’s beds, it’s an idea, an institution in which competing ideologies vie for power. This is how it’s always been, as Lin Manuel Miranda and  his delightful musical hope to remind us. I’m cautiously optimistic, we’ve come this far, after all. 

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