“The government is what we call ourselves when we agree to work together,” retired U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., told an audience at Colby College in Waterville last month.
The problem of partisan gridlock in Washington, Frank explained, is not a function of Republicans and Democrats no longer being able to work together, it is a matter an extremist element within the Republican Party that simply does not believe in government.
We were reminded of this last week when Gov. Paul LePage toured arson-ravaged Lewiston and told hundreds of people left homeless that the state could not help them. I’d like to think that the facts that those burned out of their homes are mostly refugees and the entire Lewiston delegation is Democratic had nothing to do with LePage’s refusal to help.
To those on the far right, anyone who believes that cooperation is more productive than competition, that the common good should take precedent over private gain, or that the government has any role to play in achieving social and economic justice, is a socialist or, worse still, a communist.
Back in 2012, before he was voted out of office and took up residence on Fox News, Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., accused the members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus of being communists because they supported Obamacare.
“It’s an indication of the significant deterioration of the Republican Party as a responsible entity,” Barney Frank shot back, “that an ignorant, mean guy like Allen West is considered one of their stars.”
We know all about ignorant, mean guys here in Maine.
For the record, I am not a communist or a socialist. I am a liberal Democrat. If anything, I am probably closer in my political beliefs to a communitarian philosophy. Communitarians, in response to the over-emphasis of liberalism and libertarianism on individual freedom, hold that strong, healthy communities are a precondition for strong, healthy individuals.
Though I am not a card-carrying communitarian, I do share some key communitarian positions, among them that every citizen is entitled to a public education, affordable health care and a clean environment, and that those in need are entitled to decent housing and a healthy diet. These are rights, not privileges.
Not only do I believe that people possess these positive rights, I also believe that there are some things too vital to be left to for-profit companies, among them public education, health care, national defense, law enforcement, corrections, general assistance and social safety-net programs such as Social Security – the very things conservative strive to privatize.
Free market anarchists like LePage promote the myth of the self-made man, the unfettered capitalist, the intrepid entrepreneur, the rugged individualist. But as President Obama has correctly pointed out (and taken unmerciful abuse for) no one ever became a success without help, much of it from the government.
“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help,” Obama said in a July 2012 campaign speech. “There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business – you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”
Conservatives refuse to admit it of course, but America has never had free-market capitalism. We have a managed economy with a social safety net beneath it designed to catch those who are guaranteed to fail by the very nature of capitalism, and to help those who suffer great misfortune and disasters natural and man-made.
The government is what we call ourselves when we agree to work together.
The fact that LePage cannot see his way clear to provide a little state funding to help Lewiston residents burned out of their homes places him in the same lowly category as those Republican members of Congress who voted against Hurricane Sandy relief.
But that’s what you get when you make the mistake of electing people to run the government who do not believe in government. And that’s why Paul LePage has nothing to offer the people of Maine except his own pain.