Sure, the roughly $6 trillion we spend at the federal, state, and local levels each year buys a lot of goods and services. But which of those goods and services do we see every day? What do we interact with that we think of as “government”? For most of us, it’s the DMV, the IRS, occasionally the police—and maybe a few other public programs or services, depending on who you are. If you’re a small business owner, e.g., it may be the SBA. If you’re a veteran, it may be the VA.
Though academics argue over the myriad sources of citizens’ (record-breakingly low) trust in government and their (divided) belief in the importance of government action, surely one of the major drivers must be our judgment of the stuff we actually see. If the DMV comprises one-third of your interactions with government and the DMV comes across as incompetent, you are not crazy if you extrapolate that the government is at least one-third incompetent. If the “government is shut down” and your life goes on uninterrupted, you are not crazy to conclude that the government must not do very much.
Political campaigns know this by heart. They understand the importance of meeting people where they are and touching them individually with phone calls, field offices, personalized emails, sparkling websites, social media, and, at their best, neighborhood teams of volunteers. Campaigns know that we judge, at least in part, based on what we see.
This is why, for example, it’s unconscionable that the Department of Health and Human Services was not able, with a lot of lead time, to construct a workable website for the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Very few Americans, after all, are scholars of the individual mandate; very few of us will ever read the 906-page law. What we see is what we know. And if we see an awful website, we are not crazy to extrapolate that the whole program is awful.
When it comes to the so-called shutdown, what many of us have seen thus far is some shuttered national parks, a few closed monuments, and ongoing squabbling in D.C.—in other words, business as usual. That’s because most of what government does, it’s still doing. If life for most people goes on as before, we only make government sound worthless when we speak as if it’s been closed down.
None of this means that proponents of a robust federal government should seek to make every spending gap into an all-out catastrophe, forcing all government programs to go dark just to prove a point; there have, after all, been 17 of these things since 1976, many of which occurred in a much less polarized environment than today’s. Since it’s unlikely this one will be the last, it’s wise to continue to protect ourselves against the anarchy of a full-scale shutdown.
Instead, we need to be a bit less apocalyptic in our messaging and a lot more attentive to the work of government that people do see—explaining in the short-term that funding lapses like this one interfere with important investments and hurt real people, while demonstrating over the longer-term the importance and efficacy of a fully-functioning, fully-funded state.
Americans don’t interact with government all that much these days. We owe it to them, and to the institution itself, to make it clear—and make it count—when they do.