Archived Story

The U.S. government is us, not against us

Published 9:22am Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Column: My Point of View, by Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

I have to admit I agree with Sarah Palin when she says, “It’s time to take our country back.” Our political system does indeed need rescuing.

Some time ago, a group of independent-minded men thought a people could rule a nation, and they set out to prove it could be done. They boldly penned these words: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Jennifer Vogt-Erickson
Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

Four score and about seven years later, in the aftermath of one of the Civil War’s deadliest battles, a war-weary president vowed to continue the great experiment: “We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

And over a century later, a new president took the stage in uncertain times with a history-changing notion: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; it is the problem.”

Each of these quotations is embedded in our national psyche, but the third one diverges from the others. If we start from the premise of the first two, that the people are the government, the third statement says, in effect, “we the people” are not capable of solving our problems.

This is a detrimental claim in a representative democracy. Yet many people, including Sarah Palin and like-minded conservatives, have carried that banner forward, probably further than Ronald Reagan intended. To them, government (we the people) must always be reined in or whittled down.

But if the government (we the people) does not maintain the power, then who does? At the time of our country’s birth, the struggle for power was against monarchy and aristocracy. In Abraham Lincoln’s time, it was against secession. Today it is against corporatocracy, or control by corporate interests.

After more than 30 years of Reagan-inspired deregulation, our banks are “too big to fail,” our media has merged into huge conglomerates offering more entertainment than news, and many public services like prison management and military base operations have been outsourced to private contractors.

We now have the greatest income inequality in living memory. Changes in the tax structure and the decline of real wages have resulted in the biggest transfer of wealth in U.S. history — from the middle and working classes to the top 1 percent of citizens.

While unemployment remains stubbornly high and the rest of America is struggling to get back on its feet, there is no recession in corporate America. The stock market has been breaking records again.

Addressing this downturn in the general welfare versus the top might be more of a priority for politicians if they didn’t exhaust 30 to 70 percent of their time fundraising. And who finances the bulk of their campaigns? Wealthy donors and corporate interests. In the House of Representatives, with two-year terms, the campaigning never stops. Decisions must be made with an eye to the big donors first.

After the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010, Super PACs quickly emerged, with 60 percent of their money coming from just 132 individuals in the 2012 election. This is an even deeper corruption of the process, and it’s completely legal.

Furthermore, after serving in Congress, a growing number of politicians move directly into lobbying positions, earning an average of more than 10 times as much as their government salaries. Where does representing the people fit into that equation? In the trunk under the spare tire, clearly. Private interests trump public interest, and loss of faith in government (we the people) has gone hand-in-hand with this erosion of democracy.

So it is time once again to take our country back. Most major reforms in the public interest will not happen until we address campaign finance reform first. We need a Teddy Roosevelt-like figure to take the stage — somebody who doesn’t give a rip what the donors say in matters where private interests conflict with public interests and plows ahead, giving other politicians courage to do the same. That person will have to be bottomlessly energetic and charismatic, and unfortunately by this point, probably richer than a troll. (Barack Obama and Mitt Romney’s campaigns each spent nearly a billion dollars, and many U.S. Senate campaigns now spend in the tens of millions.)

We have overcome greater things before and darker days have passed. We can all benefit from a renewed spirit of public-mindedness. Fair, efficient government, which secures “the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity,” is only possible if we stop ceding power to the corporatocracy. The idea that we should diminish and hobble government (we the people) needs to fade just like Sarah Palin’s star.


Albert Lea resident Jennifer Vogt-Erickson is a member of the Albert Lea DFL Party.