The ‘80s Malaise--Cynicism for Government

In Tuesday night’s 90-minute interview with Ted Koppel, Michael Dukakis lost a singular opportunity to redefine the terms of this presidential election.

The fault was not Dukakis’ as much as the nature of Koppel’s questions. Many of them reflected core assumptions that have become silent articles of faith through unchallenged repetition over the past eight years of Republican leadership. These assumptions flow from an underlying cynicism and declining faith in the ability of government, or institutions of government, to solve our nation’s problems.

The cynicism was evident in the sarcastic tone in which Koppel commented on Dukakis’ “faith in international organizations” to solve such problems as the Middle East conflict or the growing power of the Colombian drug cartel. It came across again when Koppel challenged Dukakis to defend the label “liberal,” skewing the question by adding the modification “bleeding-heart liberal.”

Such questions reflect a growing skepticism about the prospects for innovative policy formation and forceful program action. It holds that alternatives to military force and austere domestic policy are naive, unrealistic, dangerous.


Underlying this year’s Republican campaign fanfare about American greatness is an unspoken thesis that America’s options are limited. Many people do believe that nothing new is possible--that government has already tried everything, internationally and domestically, and most of it does not work. The candidacy of Vice President George Bush feeds on the power of this doubt. Gov. Dukakis has little more than a week to counter it.

The American people must be persuaded that reliance on military solutions and crisis mentality is an admission of fear, not a demonstration of power. It assumes that terrorists, drug runners, corrupt bureaucrats, incompetent politicians and foolish human beings dominate every nation and every context of our national interests abroad. It assumes that all has been tried and all has failed.

This is a misreading of our history. Americans must be reminded that through careful devotion to the building of supportive institutions, we can begin to solve some of our most troubling problems. Recall our experience in the early 1960s: President John F. Kennedy admitted that the United States had fallen behind the Soviet Union in science, education and technology, and he ordered a massive investment of government resources to build up science education and literacy. The Republicans failed to comprehend the importance of such investments in our country’s institutions and withheld their support. As a result, scientific literacy has sunk so low in this country in the past 10 years that only one-third of Americans know that the Earth revolves around the sun.

Our recent history offers numerous examples of government planning and support that are now counted almost universally as among our greatest achievements, among them the campaign to eliminate polio, the construction of millions of homes on an unprecedented scale after World War II, and the extension of a college education to a majority of Americans. Just as institutional efforts can be dismantled in a decade, they can also be built in a decade.


The same is true of inter-institutional infrastructures that can operate effectively internationally. In the past eight years, key international organizations have been weakened in large part because the United States has withdrawn support. Through such pioneering efforts as the Marshall Plan and the Alliance for Progress, America vigorously supported the sustained building of organizations that would nurture legitimate leadership, permit productive exchange of information and help establish linkages to the lowest institutional levels of other societies. Had we sustained such efforts, we would now have both linkages and continuity to address crises that confront us in Latin America and the Middle East. Such a framework would particularly serve our effort to promote sustainable economic growth and eliminate the drug cartels that feed on poverty.

In his campaign, Dukakis has suggested that he appreciates the possibilities of public-private sector planning and cooperation. But he has not made those possibilities clear to the voters. Cynicism about government prevails.

It takes humility to learn. It is only vision that supports institution-building instead of reactionism. Dukakis must move beyond his management message to a model of institution-building--from the bottom up, not the top down. Americans will understand this concept much better than the vacuous slogan of “people working together.”

Cynicism is not realism; it is fear. To confront it, Dukakis has a body of Democratic wisdom to draw on and restore American optimism. Remember the effect on the American people of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “The main thing we have to fear is fear itself,” or John Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

On the contemporary scene, for perhaps the best, most recent antidote to negative policy, hear Jesse Jackson’s crucial words: “Keep hope alive. We think we know it all, but God may just not be finished with us yet.”