The coronavirus pandemic will wreak great havoc before it is done, but it also may do at least one good thing.
It just might liberate us from some self-defeating myths.
Chief among them is the notion that government is always the problem.
This has been a persistent false article of faith for nearly half a century. Ever since Jimmy Carter campaigned for the White House as an outsider who pledged to clean up Washington’s post-Watergate cesspool, every successful presidential candidate has presented himself as a rebel storming the gates — one who vows to root out all corruption, even if he has to tear the entire structure down to do it.
It’s now become a cliché to belittle President Donald Trump’s contempt for the institutions and processes of self-government, but the reality is that he did not start this trend. He just is its culmination.
Trump also is the embodiment of the myth’s contradictions.
He ran for the Oval Office by promising to drain the swamp, but, once installed as commander-in-chief, he has worked without pause to ignore, disable or dismantle safeguards designed to ensure ethical conduct and prevent personal profiteering. While promising strong, decisive action, he has worked to undermine the underpinnings of government and chased away the experienced hands who make essential government services function.
We see now, amid this global health crisis, how dangerous and deadly waging war on our own government can be. At a time, when we need the wheels of government to roll smoothly, many of them barely function because we have spent so much time and energy shoving sticks between the spokes.
It’s not fair to blame Trump for the federal government’s lackluster performance in meeting the coronavirus challenge, because, again, he is far from the first to indulge in anti-government rhetoric and maneuvering to get elected.
Nor is it fair to indict just one party. Both Republicans and Democrats have pointed their fingers at the federal government as the cause of all that ails America and then found it almost impossible to lead after they achieved office in the government they claimed to despise.
The fundamental flaws in this “all-government-is-bad” approach have been apparent from the beginning.
In the largest sense, declaring war on government in a society such as ours is like enacting a suicide pact. Because our government draws its authority from the consent of the governed — our U.S. and state constitutions are the contracts that set forth the terms — we cannot go to battle with our government without opening fire on ourselves. The more we cripple the government that is the expression of our will as a free people, the more we wound ourselves.
Savvy leaders have begun to see the dead-end into which they have marched themselves and begun to look for a way out.
Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb, for example, has tried to recast the discussion about taxes and spending. (If all government is bad, then it stands to reason that all taxation is theft.)
He has argued, subtly, that both his party and his state have looked at the question of government wrong. Government actions — and therefore government expenditures — should be considered as investments in public wellbeing, and thus should be judged by their return on investment.
Not simply on whether any investment is required.
It’s an approach that is both mature and, given his party’s aversion to taxation, courageous.
But it also is an approach that carries some risk.
When Holcomb first moved to have Indiana adopt social distancing and other health-and-safety practices both medical professionals and common sense called for, there was pushback. It didn’t come from the governor’s political opponents in the Democratic Party but from his supposed allies.
Several far-right conservatives in the Republican Party contended that Holcomb was expanding government’s powers during the crisis.
And government, they argued, was a greater evil than the coronavirus.
Once again, they made the case that self-government is a suicide pact.
Present circumstances should convince us otherwise.
Only government has the capacity to meet the threat the coronavirus presents.
If government doesn’t work during these dark days, more people will die.
It’s as simple — and as tragic — as that.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.