When young people these days seek my counsel on what needs doing in society, they often want me to help them find a place in the nonprofit sector. I turn the tables and test their interest in public work by asking them what they think of government. Words like daunting, dysfunctional and doomed come up too frequently. I suspect that 30 years of hearing the cultural echoes of Ronald Reagan’s “government is the problem” trope have jaded many.
There’s at least one political party out there presently hanging Americans out to dry with a dead-end mythology of kitchen table government. You know, the kind that comes packaged in a tiny do-it-yourself kit requiring no pesky institutions operating at the scale of a strong society. Beating this drum has gotten a lot of chronic obstructionists elected to Congress and state legislatures. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, a break-the-gridlock sort of guy, recently wrote of a paralyzed House of Representatives that’s become “a small-minded, parochial place, where collaboration is considered treason, where science is considered a matter of opinion, where immigration is considered a threat, where every solution is a suboptimal compromise enacted at midnight and where every day we see proof of the theory that America is a country that was ‘designed by geniuses so that it could be run by idiots.’”
I’ve begun urging young people to occupy government. I remind them that many public institutions – all of which are overseen by democratically elected representatives – have evolved over time, helping enormous numbers of people along the way. A poor west Texan kid who reached for and achieved the pinnacle of American Presidential power, Lyndon Johnson foresaw how profound and lasting good could come of bringing electric power to remote rural towns and farms. As a congressman, he advanced massive public works projects like the Tennessee Valley Authority. His efforts brought a vision of real and economically valuable public good to bright and glowing light (pun intended) for residents of seven southeastern states. TVA has stood the test of an 80-year history, despite periodic assault by powerful adversaries. Ronald Reagan himself, after years as a hired gun promoting General Electric, was fired by that company in 1962 when he publicly referred to TVA (a major customer for GE turbines) as one of the problems of big government.
I discourage no one from choosing, after careful consideration, a path in community-based organizations or other groups operating as nonprofits. I qualify myself by pointing out that too much social sector activity today is duplicative, dispersed, disintegrated, disengaged and divorced from anchor institutions capable of performing at a scale sufficient to address the needs of society. The social sector needs a heavy dose of political savvy, and that should not exclude nonprofit leaders imbued with civil society values running for elected office and vying for high positions in government institutions.
Without thoughtful changeshapers strategically positioned inside government, how will we ever create the fertile ground that can grow community-tested solutions at the scale only government can achieve? We've lost that edge, possibly because we’ve been fooled by the political myth that government is the problem. Such nonsense has left too many capable people, who otherwise would be inclined toward public work, disconnected and in the grip of cynical notions handed down for well over a generation.
I'm a "governing greatness" guy even as I understand the power of politics to stifle and smother as well as lift up and take the lead. The latter is there for the making when young people steeped in principals of pragmatic public good seize and occupy government.