“Government is good,” says Douglas J. Amy

Douglas J. Amy is professor of politics at Mt. Holyoke College. His “Government is Good” website and Facebook page feature topics such as: countering attacks against government; how government promotes the public good; and how to make government more democratic. In an interview with Occasional Planet (OP), Amy (DA) shares some of his views:

OP: You teach Introduction to Politics.  What attitudes and misconceptions do college students bring to your class?

DA: They come in with an extremely cynical and negative view of politics. The word “politics” itself has a negative connotation for them, and they tend to take a harsh view of government. I find myself battling that cynicism all the time. I try to talk about the potentials of government, and I emphasize that becoming politically active is a noble activity, a way to be a moral person in the world.

OP: But so many young people were involved in the 2008 election. Didn’t that enthusiasm have a carry-over effect?

DA: Somewhat. But Obama’s ability to rally young people was an exception. Young people saw him as a symbol of hope, but in the past year, some of the old cynicism has crept back in. There’s been some disappointment and disillusionment as the radical changes many were expecting haven’t materialized. I try to tell students that they need to be idealistic, but realistic.

OP: So, in realistic terms, have there been any qualitative improvements in government since the Obama administration came to power?

DA: Yes, particularly in the regulatory process. President Bush put a lot of effort into undermining workplace regulations, food safety and environmental protection. He knew, though, that people actually liked those regulatory protections, so rather than publicly removing them, he just didn’t enforce them, and he appointed people who didn’t know much about regulatory work or who were from the industries that they were supposed to regulate. President Obama, on the other hand, has gone out of his way to find competent people who believe in the mission of the regulatory agencies.

OP: Why don’t we hear more about the good things that government agencies are doing?

DA: When government does something right, it gets no press. Most of the time, in fact, government just goes along, day by day, doing a good job. That’s not necessarily a new phenomenon in this administration.

OP: What’s an example of government doing its job well?

DA: The Environmental Protection Agency is one. Ever since its inception, EPA has been very effective in improving the quality of the air and water in our country. And they do it very efficiently. EPA costs about $30 per year per American. It’s hard to think of a better use of $30.

OP: What’s the source of anti-government sentiment?

DA: Suspicion of government is part of America’s political culture. This country was started by people who were suspicious of the British monarchy and authority in general. In fact, I think we should be suspicious of any organization with a large amount of power—government, church, whatever. I don’t have a problem with that.  The problem is that the far right has moved from suspicion to hatred of government. That’s taking it too far. We need to see that, as a whole, democratic government is working well for us.

OP: If government generally works well for us, why do people voice such strong sentiments against it?

DA: A lot of Americans are very insecure economically. We worry about how we’ll be able to retire, how we’ll afford to send our kids to college, pay for our healthcare, or make our mortgage payments. People are looking for someone to blame for these problems. One of the loudest voices is that of big business, which routinely points the finger at government. They’ve made government a scapegoat to distract people from the real problems, many of which come from the private sector itself. The political right doesn’t want to talk about that.

OP: What frustrates you when you try to talk about good government?

DA: People often express self-contradictory views about government. On one level, they’ll say they’re “anti-government.” If you ask them, “Do you trust government,” they’ll say, “No.” But if you ask them about particular government services, like EPA, local fire and police, or FDIC, they’ll say, “Oh, yeah, that’s a good one. That works pretty well.” I often can get the conversation to that level, but in the end, people still say “I think we should limit government.”

OP: If you could immediately change anything in our government system, what would it be?

DA: Campaign financing. Our system is beyond broken. There’s so much money flowing from corporations that the whole thing has become corrupted. And this corruption of the electoral process is connected to the way people view government, because they see government as responding more to the special interests that fund campaigns than to the citizens it’s supposed to represent and protect. We really need public financing of elections, like they have in Maine, so that politicians can be less beholden to special interests.

OP: What’s your view of the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling on campaign finance?

DA: It’s a disaster. We already had a problem with the influence of big business—through PACs and individual contributions—on elections. This decision will make a bad problem worse.

OP: Who is your role model for making government work well?

DA: Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He ignited a sea change in the way people looked at the federal government and its role in society. He put into play a new philosophy of government responsibility and activism. Before the 1930s, the government played a very limited role. Economic ups and downs were viewed like the weather: they just happened, and we endured them. Roosevelt didn’t invent a new role for government; he got his ideas from the American Left and from Western Europe. They were way ahead of the U.S. in offering pensions and universal healthcare. And ever since then, we’ve taken it for granted that when big problems occur, government is the only institution that can step in to deal with them.

OP: What other websites or blogs would you recommend for readers interested in engaging in the dialogue about good government?

DA: DEMOS is doing a great job. Their Public Works Project has done a lot to advance the idea that our public sector has a crucial role to play in promoting the public interest.