It takes language that plugs into the national consciousness to change our attitudes toward the government.
A fascinating short film from 1969 popped up yesterday on a number of quirky non-political websites. It was made by the designer and filmmaker Saul Bass to persuade the Bell System to adopt a new logo, as well as new designs for its trucks, uniforms, and phone booths. If you're a Mad Men fan or are into design, or both, it's worth the 27 minutes to watch it.
But what I found most interesting in it was a clue to the question we often ask, especially in the Roosevelt Institute's Rediscovering Government initiative: When and why did Americans lose the faith in government that characterized the era that began with the New Deal and continued through the postwar decades?
In trying to convince the Bell System (the phone company before it was broken up into regional companies, such as what became Verizon, in 1984) to embrace a modern, high-tech (by 1969 standards) look, the voice-over puts it in the context of a narrative of the United States in the middle part of the twentieth century. Starting at about 2:10, over images of Vietnam, racial discord and harmony, the world from space, crowded highways, smokestacks, and symbols of late-'60s consumerism, the voice-over tells us:
We’re fighting a war. Making a peace. Integrating. Segregating. Getting richer. Getting poorer. It’s quite a time to be alive....
Then, after a little section about how it's tough for business because consumers of 1969 have such high expectations, the images switch to those of the Great Depression, with the voice of Franklin Roosevelt – “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” – in the background.
Many of us here today remember when it was quite different. The pursuit of happiness had ground to a halt. Survival was the goal — just to have a job, but to have a job with security: That was the prize in 1933. How long a product lasted was more important than how well it looked. Wall Street had forgotten blue sky and was now talking blue chip. Down-to-earth, safe — that was the place to be.
“Just to have a telephone was a marvel” at that time, the voice says. Back then, it was enough to offer products that were “safe, durable,” but now “times have changed, looks have changed... When young people are looking for challenge, we seem to offer only security.”
And throughout, government is used as a symbol for the safe, staid post-Depression world. Over an image of the Bell System's motley fleet of old trucks, the film asks, “Is this the world's most advanced communications organization? Or the motor pool of the Quartermaster Corps?” At another point, making the case for snazzy new uniforms, the film declares that the old outfits looked “government-issue.”
One of the great challenges of history is understanding how people in the past thought about their own past and what their history taught them. Nothing before Mad Men had made me fully appreciate that for people in the prosperous, fast-moving 1960s, the Great Depression was a real, living memory. The worst year of the Depression, 1937, was by 1969 only 32 years in the past – that's the same distance as between our time and the election of Ronald Reagan. But a typical 40-year-old in 1969 would be living in a very different world than that of her childhood – vastly more so than someone born in 1972 living today.
And that difference had a direct bearing on thinking about the role of government. The security that government provided in the era of “fear itself” was by 1969 seen as antiquated, a reminder of a time that people wanted to forget.
When we talk about declining trust in government, we often tend to focus primarily on political arguments and claims, the language of the California tax revolt, of Reagan, Newt Gingrich, and more recently the rhetorical argument between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama/Elizabeth Warren, the latter who both dared to point out the essential role of government and collective action in building the foundations for individual economic success. But the political language of a Reagan can only take hold when it connects to people's cultural assumptions and predispositions, when it connects to our sense of national narrative. Because it has nothing to do with politics – it's a corporate pitch, much like Don Draper's for the Kodak Carousel. Bass's Bell System film is a fascinating reminder of how deep that sense of national narrative that government was staid and outdated went.
Today our narrative is very different. “Just to have a job with security” is again a sufficient goal for millions of us. The economic promise of 1969 gave way within a decade to a long period of stagnation, radical inequality, and economic insecurity. At the same time, we're still the children of that promise, resistant to things that are “government issue,” safe and durable, eager for “challenge” as well as security. Rediscovering government requires more than just a political argument – it calls on us to rethink how government defines itself and presents itself and connects to our deepest sense of where we've been and where we're going, much as Saul Bass asked the Bell System to do in 1969.
Mark Schmitt is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.