Jennifer Vogt-Erickson: Be wary of political rhetoric

Published 10:48 pm Monday, October 23, 2017

My Point of View by Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

“You know that big government doesn’t hurt the big corporations. They’ve got the best lawyers and accountants in the world. You know who gets destroyed by big government? It’s the little guys.”

This quote by Marco Rubio is pernicious for several reasons. For one thing, the first part is mostly true. Big corporations are stacked with some of the best lawyers and accountants in the world. They have formidable defenses, and building a winnable case against them for lawbreaking takes mammoth time and money.

Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

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They also have the resources to write legislation or key language which favors them. Members of Congress spend hours on the phone each week begging for donations, and their staffers are spread so thin that they have outsourced some writing of legislation to corporate lobbyists. The true source of legislation may not be apparent. Think about that: corporations can write the legislation that regulates their industries, without the public and sometimes even other members of Congress being aware of their authorship.

According to Lee Drutman, then a senior fellow at the Sunlight Foundation, an organization dedicated to transparency in government, “The expertise on policymaking more and more has moved to the private sector, and it’s moved to represent those organizations and companies who can afford to pay for it, which generally isn’t you and me. It’s big banks and Big Oil and big companies.”

The second reason Rubio’s quote is harmful is that when government makes mistakes or isn’t responsive, it’s true that individuals with fewer resources can have their lives turned upside down. Most people can quickly think of examples, some that affected them personally.

So why is Rubio’s quote dangerous? It’s because he omits the fact that little guys get destroyed by big business, too, and their main recourse is through government.

If government is scaled back and underfunded, people have fewer constructive options for solving their problems and standing up for their rights. The government is the referee that keeps the playing field level and protects the rights of the weak against the strong. The last thing we need is for this function of government to be sidelined. Our power in a democratic system is that we can make the government work for us. When we don’t, corporations fill the vacuum.

Antigovernment rhetoric like Marco Rubio’s is the single greatest tool of the super wealthy for getting people to willingly give up their power and the value of their labor. Maligning government at every turn is a strategy to accomplish that. Marco Rubio isn’t a member of this privileged rank himself, but he is rewarded with campaign donations for promoting that message.

One purpose of this rhetoric is to take funding away from government and win big tax breaks for the people who least need them. The Republican’s draconian tax plan, which will accelerate inequality and benefit a scant few in Freeborn County, serves this end. Furthermore, desperation to pass it seems to be Republican leaders’ main reason for tolerating President Trump’s repeated violations of common decency.

Antigovernment rhetoric is also meant to demote the status of serving in government, again to reduce government’s power. Government service pays less than the private sector, but it once carried great respect. This erosion makes it more difficult to recruit talented people to government jobs. John F. Kennedy’s resounding words, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your county,” don’t ring in as many young people’s ears today. They could be forgiven for thinking the only way to honorably and courageously serve their country is to enlist in the military or join law enforcement. These are fine things, but that’s a woefully incomplete list of government jobs that are instrumental to our safety and well-being.

Given the extent of inequality that exists today and our political trajectory, we are on the path to becoming a failed democracy. To avoid a plutocracy — rule by the wealthy — we have to rekindle a sense of shared prosperity and purpose. When the Founding Fathers enshrined the “pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence, they weren’t just referring to individual happiness, but to the common good.

An emphasis on individualism instead of the common good atomizes people and waters down their power. This mainly serves the interests of people who have abundant private resources and want to acquire more without accountability.

Democratic government has shortcomings, but we have a say in addressing them as citizens, from the city of Albert Lea on up. We can vote, we can call our elected officials and view their voting records, we can run for office, etc. It guarantees all our rights as citizens. Be wary of insidious messages that aim to make “We the people” cede our power.

Jennifer Vogt-Erickson is a member of the Freeborn County DFL Party.