DAVE DAVIES, host:
A lot of words have figured in the health care debate, but none more controversial than the word government. Our linguist Geoff Nunberg has been looking at the history of the g-word and the changing rhetoric that surrounds it. From the New Deal, to the Reagan era, to the present.
GEOFF NUNBERG: In sickness and in health, the Republicans have always been good at singing from the same hymnal. And right now, they're all turned to the page that's headed: government takeover. The takeover charge makes supporters of the Democrats' health care plans apoplectic. There's nothing like that in the plans, they say. It's like equating the provision of public toilets with a takeover of the nation's bathrooms. But even so, the supporters would as soon leave the word government out of the conversation, which is why they describe the proposed federally run insurance program as the public option.
Public is the word we use when we want to talk about government approvingly by focusing on its beneficiaries, as in public schools, public servants, public lands and public works. That's how freighted the g-word has become. People will readily defend particular government programs, but when you listen to the ambient noise - the radio talk shows, the late-night monologues, the how-many-bureaucrats-does-it-take-to-change-a-light-bulb jokes - it seems to be a truth universally acknowledged that government in the abstract is inefficient, self-serving, intrusive, and generally a terrible idea.
The political scientist Samuel Huntington once said that distrust of government is as American as apple pie, but that suspicion waxes and wanes. In other eras, the word government could inspire admiration and even awe. You think back to the 1930's, when millions of kids joined Junior G-Man clubs, that's G as in government, pledging to become secret operators in law-and-order patrols, in emulation of J. Edgar Hoover's heroically intrusive federal agents. Or recall the scene toward the end of John Ford's 1940 film of "The Grapes of Wrath," with Henry Fonda. After their long and harrowing journey from Oklahoma to California, the Joad family finally arrives at a bright, clean camp for migrants run by the Department of Agriculture, and an incredulous Tom Joad talks to the manager.
(Soundbite of movie, "The Grapes of Wrath")
Mr. HENRY FONDA (Actor): (as Tom Joad) You aimin' to tell me the fellas that are runnin' the camp are jus' fellas campin' here?
Mr. GRANT MITCHELL (Actor): (as Caretaker) That's the way it is.
Mr. FONDA: (as Tom Joad) And you say no cops?
Mr. MITCHELL: (as Caretaker) No cop can come in here without a warrant.
Mr. FONDA: (as Tom Joad) Why, I can't hardly believe it. Camp I was in before, they burned it out, the deputies an' some of them poolroom fellas.
Mr. MITCHELL: (as Caretaker) They don't get in here. Sometimes the boys patrol the fences, especially on dance nights.
Mr. FONDA: (as Tom Joad) You got dances, too?
Mr. MITCHELL: (as Caretaker) Yeah. The best dances in the county every Saturday night.
Mr. FONDA: (as Tom Joad) Who runs this place?
Mr. MITCHELL: (as Caretaker) The government.
Mr. FONDA: (as Tom Joad) Well, why ain't there more like it?
Mr. MITCHELL: (as Caretaker) You find out, I can't.
NUNBERG: Of course, there were plenty of people back then who weren't quite so grateful for the government's expanded role. But they hedged their objections by granting that government was a useful check on the excesses of the private sector. When Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie coined the phrase, big government, in 1940, it was as a play on the words, big business. And he conceded that government intervention had been necessary to correct what he called, corporate tyranny. And over the next thirty years, Republicans, from Taft to Eisenhower to Nixon, never warned of the risks of big government without also acknowledging the need to restrain big business as well. That rhetoric shifted abruptly in the 1970's, when public confidence in government dropped precipitously.
People have blamed it on everything from Vietnam and Watergate to negative campaigning and media sensationalism. By the 1976 election, Ford and Carter were both running against the bloated federal bureaucracy. But it was Ronald Reagan who decisively transformed the language of political debate. Earlier Republicans opposed big government because it was big. Reagan opposed it because it was government. And he drove his views home with jaunty aphorisms: The government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we'll ever see on this earth. The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, I'm from the government and I'm here to help. Actually, it was the Democrat Ed Muskie, who was the first politician to use that line, but Reagan had a way of making these things his own.
But Reagan's real contribution was to shrink the cast of characters to a basic opposition between government and the people. Big business was eliminated from the political landscape, absorbed into the market, where everybody was free to shop around for the ripest tomatoes. You could no longer ask the question, whose side is government on? Government simply was the other side. Within a decade, that had became the received picture, not just for the Gingrich Republicans, but for the new Democrats, who were trying to neutralize the Republicans' rhetorical advantage, albeit with mixed success. In 1996, Bill Clinton famously proclaimed in his State of the Union speech that the era of big government is over. The next day, the conservative Weekly Standard ran the headline: We win.
You can hear the echoes of Reagan's voice when opponents of the health care plans raise the specter of government bureaucrats interfering with the sanctity of the doctor-patient relationship, cropping the insurance companies out of the frame. That's no doubt what led President Obama a few weeks ago to start talking about insurance reform, rather than health care reform, by way of refocusing attention on the insurance companies and the HMOs.
Nobody expects Americans to become as enthusiastic about government as they were during the New Deal, and just as well, since that tends to go along with desperate times. But with the revival of populist rhetoric in the bailout era, people may return to talking about government with a resigned acceptance, the way Nelson Rockefeller did almost 50 years ago. Let's face it, he said. Big government is here to stay, like big business. This is a big country, after all.
DAVIES: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the School of Information, at the University of California at Berkeley.
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