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Saturday, December 10, 2016

WASHINGTON — Why don’t Democrats just say it? They really believe in active government and think it does good and valuable things. One of those valuable things is that government creates jobs — yes, really — and also the conditions under which more jobs can be created.

You probably read that and thought: But don’t Democrats and liberals say this all the time? Actually, the answer is no. It’s Republicans and conservatives who usually say that Democrats and liberals believe in government. Progressive politicians often respond by apologizing for their view of government, or qualifying it, or shifting as fast as the speed of light from mumbled support for government to robust affirmations of their faith in the private sector.

This is beginning to change, but not fast enough. And the events of recent weeks suggest that if progressives do not speak out plainly on behalf of government, they will be disadvantaged throughout the election-year debate. Gov. Scott Walker’s victory in the Wisconsin recall election owed to many factors, including his overwhelming financial edge. But he was also helped by the continuing power of the conservative anti-government idea in our discourse. An energetic argument on one side will be defeated only by an energetic argument on the other.

The case for government’s role in our country’s growth and financial success goes back to the very beginning. One of the reasons I wrote my book “Our Divided Political Heart” was to show that, from Alexander Hamilton and Henry Clay forward, farsighted American leaders understood that action by the federal government was essential to ensuring the country’s prosperity, developing our economy, promoting the arts and sciences, and building large projects: the roads and canals, and later, under Abraham Lincoln, the institutions of higher learning, that bound a growing nation together.

Both Clay and Lincoln battled those who used states’ rights slogans to crimp federal authority and who tried to use the Constitution to handcuff anyone who would use the federal government creatively. Both read the Constitution’s commerce clause as Franklin Roosevelt and progressives who followed him did, as permitting federal action to serve the common good. A belief in government’s constructive capacities is not some recent ultra-liberal invention.