FDR and his New Deal programs may best be remembered for how they transformed the way the American people related to their government. He himself reminded them, "Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us."
But times have certainly changed. A much-circulated graph in an article by Suzanne Mettler showed that half of Americans who have been the recipients of a social program say they have "not used a government program." This is on full display when Tea Partiers demand government get its hands off their Medicare. And as Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Mark Schmitt draws out in his fantastic review out today of Mettler's new book, The Submerged State, this is a feature of our current governmental system, not a bug.
Want some recent evidence? As Mark points out, in one poll only 12 percent of voters said their taxes had gone down under the Obama administration, even though they received a tax credit that was more likely to be spent than even the Bush tax cut we all received in the mail. This is because the tax credit, while delivered efficiently, was invisible to those whom it benefitted. As Mark puts it:
Countless federal benefits are delivered so unobtrusively, through the tax system or through public-private partnerships, that their beneficiaries hardly know government played any role. It is difficult to have a real democratic debate about the role of government, Mettler argues, when so much of what government does is unknown and unseen.
The answer to this problem isn't just a better PR machine spreading the gospel of all the good government does for its people, though. As Mark points out, "Mettler is not calling for a change in the public image of government; she wants to change government itself." He wants to take this even further by sparking a totally new era of government:
[I] is not just a matter of "revealing" submerged policies or replacing them with more visible ones. It is time for a new era of reinventing government, in which the goal is to establish certain clear, unambiguous public functions, and put energy and resources behind them... Responsibilities should be clearly delineated between the public and private sectors, and between governments at different levels. If providing affordable housing is a public responsibility, for example, agencies such as Fannie Mae should be fully public and fully accountable to the public, and to the extent that it's not a public function, they should be private. Such a radical rethinking of government would not only make it more efficient and more effective, but possibly better respected. It would also allow a level of public engagement that is impossible in the current world of half-seen and little understood programs. And instead of making small gestures to show government cares about problems, this approach might actually solve them.
FDR couldn't have put it better himself. Read his full review here -- it's definitely worth reading in its entirety.