The Reactive American Government

When a child is diagnosed with a developmental disability, the education system is expected to draw up a detailed plan for how it is we expect them to learn (no comment here on how I think they do at that task). By contrast, the American health care system essentially waits to treat illness until there is a diagnosed illness, rather than proactively drawing up a plan to usher the patient to success. In a way, you could invert these two examples to say that special education is reactive to a negative diagnosis and American medicine is proactive to avoid death. Either way, if comparing American governance to these systems, our government is much less proactive to reactive. We do not really try to create the reality that we seek, we just react to the problems we come across.

What is the outcome we are seeking on health care, or maximum employment, or a functional criminal justice system? Like hell if I know. We pass crime bills after a decade of violent drug trade in America, and we pass criminal justice reform when we realize we have over crowded prisons and millions of convicted felons that we destroyed in the prison system. We’re going to react to climate change, while failing to set the energy and environmental policies that get us to where we want to be. Infrastructure? We’re arguing over whether we should fix crumbling highways and bridges, decades after having the foresight to build the interstate highway system. We’re not forward thinking. We react to sickness in our public sphere. It limits the range of our reactions, and frankly our ability to have a unified, shared system of goals.

When we think about American success stories, those that were true American exceptionalism, we find they were only partially reactive, if they were reactive at all. The creation of the interstate highway system was more visionary than reactive. So was going to the Moon. Sure, both were reactive to some extent towards the Cold War, but they were more aspirational in that we set out with a national goal for what we wanted to be. The same can be said for Social Security and Medicaid, programs inspired perhaps by the Great Depression, but frankly forward thinking beyond the current crisis. LBJ’s “Great Society” was visionary of what we wanted to be, and it delivered us Medicare. In all these instances, we set goals based on values, and we pursued them based on aspiration, not illness.

Trumpism is simply a public reaction to what they perceive that we’ve become. Even though Barack Obama was a great President, the perception was that he spent a lot of time fixing the societal ailments, but less time “progressing.” Was perception right? No, but it’s reality. Sure, Obamacare was aspirational in what we want to be, but it also felt like only solving the problem of people without health care, treating a failure instead of building a future.

There is certainly an importance in fixing failure. It’s an important government function. When that’s all that we can do though, the public looses a measure of faith in the ability of government to improve their lives. That leads to the rise of frauds, strong men, and populist screwballs. We’re seeing that in America. We’re seeing that across the western world.

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