The unprecedented government shutdown is approaching the end of its first month with no foreseeable relief. The costs and the risks are quickly becoming intolerable. The notion of any upside to this fiasco is absurd.
Yet we can at least hope that the American people, often afflicted with historical amnesia, will learn a lesson from this shutdown and remember it: Government services are essential to a decent, livable, secure society — and the people who provide those services are our fellow citizens, not anonymous "bureaucrats."
Does that seem too obvious? After decades of anti-government propaganda — financed by all the usual right-wing billionaire suspects — many Americans came to believe the simple-minded mantra so famously attributed to former President Ronald Reagan: "(G)overnment is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." (In the same spirit, Reagan also once told us that the creation of Medicare would put the United States on an inexorable path to Marxist perdition.)
Although what Reagan actually said about government in 1980 was not quite so categorical, he and countless other Republican politicians devoted their careers to encouraging an abstract hatred of government — and its employees — even as they and their constituents depended on government programs for sustenance. That contradiction became an amusing cliche when a South Carolina conservative warned his congressman, "Keep your government hands off my Medicare." But Medicare, which has rescued generations of older Americans from disease and poverty, is only one important emblem of the central role of government in a modern society.
According to the old right-wing mythology, ripping down government would harm only the undeserving poor — like those people getting food stamps — and who cared? That was why Republicans like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich seemed almost gleeful whenever their budgetary antics closed down federal offices, as if they were proving an ideological point.
Today, the great majority of voters watch with deepening concern as programs critical to the security, health and prosperity of the nation are suddenly crippled or suspended. The front lines of our cordon against terrorism, infectious disease, food poisoning and foreign aggression have been severely weakened, with those who provide those services either furloughed or called into work without pay. The vital work that makes a modern economy possible, from aviation to taxation, is slowed. And the economic consequences of the shutdown are yet untold — but are certain to be felt in reduced consumption and investment, just as we confront the possibility of recession.
Under these circumstances, even the most rigid Republicans in Washington ought to begin to understand that there is nothing "conservative" about inflicting so much unnecessary damage — all for the sake of a phony campaign promise. The Trump administration embodies the worst of outdated right-wing ideology, topped off with the president's loony obstinacy. No doubt their friends in Moscow are again smiling as democracy flounders.
Beyond a renewed comprehension of why government is essential to the way we live now, there is something else we ought to be learning. As the shutdown drags on, Americans are learning about the lives and values of the workers who are its principal victims. Not only are those federal employees just like the rest of us — with utility bills, home mortgages, gas-guzzling cars and families who like to eat every day — but they also value their jobs as a form of public service.
None of them is getting rich, and the vast majority work very hard. Indeed, many are going to work every day without pay, dutifully, if angrily. It is a wrenching spectacle that puts the lie to the myth of the lazy, hostile "bureaucrat."
So maybe this time we will gain a fresh perspective on our government and the people who serve us. Maybe the old demagogy will begin to lose its hypnotic power. Maybe citizens will recognize their interest in a functioning state — and demand that elected officials stop undermining it.
To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.