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Thursday, December 8, 2016

Dredging Up The Submerged State: How Democrats Lost Their Nerve

The greatest obstacle to a New Deal-worthy response to our current economic crisis is Americans’ distrust of government. But what causes that distrust? Is it just bred in the American spirit, from the Founding Fathers? If so, how were FDR and his successors able to overcome the distrust and bring newfound powers of government to bear against an economic crisis? Is it just propaganda carried over from the Reagan era?

Last year, a fresh answer emerged in a couple of articles and now an important book, The Submerged State, from Cornell political scientist Suzanne Mettler. Mettler showed that Americans distrusted government in part because, unlike in the New Deal era, they don’t see or feel what government does. We’ve created programs that are so complicated, vague, and nuanced — tax credits and public-private partnerships — that many of their beneficiaries don’t know that they are benefiting from government at all. Mettler’s analysis has multiple implications: We have to call attention to the purpose of government and how programs like student loans help to achieve it, but we also need a new approach to the structure of government and a willingness to move decisively and visibly on big public missions.

I reviewed The Submerged State in The New Republic in October, and have subsequently had the pleasure of asking Suzanne some questions about her new book. The answers will appear in a question-and-answer format, expanding on points in the book, over the next few weeks.

Mark Schmitt: In your wonderful book, you show how the “submerged state” programs of the current era, like the tax credit for education savings, are invisible to their beneficiaries, thus fostering their feeling that government does nothing for them. You draw a contrast to older programs like Social Security and the GI Bill that recipients knew about and could feel. Most of the New Deal and Great Society programs were much more visible. How do you explain that? Was it that FDR, Harry Truman, and Lyndon B. Johnson were smarter about creating programs that people would appreciate? Or were those just simpler times?

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