Why it is more important than ever to understand what government does

As the Trump administration seeks to upend much of what our government does, our book, What American Government Does is an indispensable resource for understanding what is at stake. The new president is seeking radical changes in the direction of public policy, with substantial budget cuts to popular programs that deliver health care, environmental protection, worker safety, and consumer protection. His promised tax cuts are massive and he has proposed cutting popular social and regulatory programs to the bone. Meanwhile, he would substantially increase military spending and seeks to vastly increase the budgets and authority of immigration enforcement, while renewing the war on drugs.

Many Americans are confused about all of this, embracing both a knee-jerk hostility to “government,” while embracing much of what government actually does. This has to do with the anti-government rhetoric that has gained ascendance in recent decades. Our book cuts through the ideological haze to show citizens, students, and even scholars the achievements of, and yes, the concerns surrounding, modern American government. Our point is simply that Americans need to more fully understand what their government does, in order to make up their own minds on the issue.

Our book uncovers many of the achievements of government policy that typically go unnoticed, and it provides the most comprehensive analysis available on the role of government, including its welfare state functions, how it has sought to control moral behavior, its role in spurring technological development, the scale of our military and domestic security agencies, and its role in shaping economic globalization.

Needless to say, government is a necessary feature in complex modern societies, and government plays a continuing role in ensuring stability, safety, security, and order. Arguments about reducing the government’s role to some bare minimum would be laughable if they were not taken so seriously by many in the US today.

We recognize that much of the public skepticism about government emerges not from the simplistic anti-government sentiment promoted by many conservatives, but rather from a growing public awareness that government has evolved in recent decades to serve the powerful at the expense of the general public. Because the government is the focus for the exercise of power in our society, what it does becomes entangled in a tug of war between government officials, the powerful (wishing to uphold or expand inequalities of class, race, and gender), and the general public. The public understands this is not a battle they are winning, and they turn against government as a result. At the same time, in the name of national and domestic security, or moral fervor, government abuses the very liberties that are central to freedom, alarming the general public in this way as well. With careful attention to how power is exercised in American society, our book provides a cleansing rinse that cuts through ideological debates to engage the realities of what government does. 

 

Stan Luger is a professor and the chair of the Department of Political Science and International Affairs at the University of Northern Colorado. He is the author of Corporate Power, American Democracy, and the Automobile IndustryBrian Waddell is an associate professor of political science at the University of Connecticut. He is the author of The War against the New Deal: World War II and American Democracy and Towards the National Security State: Civil-Military Relations During World War II. Their Latest coauthored book, What American Government Does, is available now.