‘The Perils of Too Little’


Here’s a story you may have missed because it flies in the face of the dreary conventional wisdom: When advocates of public programs take on the right-wing antigovernment crowd directly, the government-haters lose.

This is what happened in two statewide referendums on November 3 that got buried under all of the attention paid to the governors’ races in Virginia and New Jersey. In Maine, voters rejected a tax-limitation measure by a walloping 60 percent to 40 percent. In Washington state, a similar measure went down, 57 to 43.

The two referendums lost in part because opponents of the so-called Taxpayer Bill of Rights measures (known as tabor) did something that happens too rarely in the national debate: They made a case for what government does, why it’s important, and why cutbacks in public services can be harmful to both individual citizens and the common good.

The idea that most voters hate government has an outsized influence on the thinking of both parties. Republicans try to exploit this feeling; Democrats try to get around it. Only rarely do those who believe in active government take the argument head-on and insist that many of the things government does are necessary and, yes, good. The media almost never discuss what the...

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About the Author

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).