As we wallow in a weekend of media-induced retro-hysteria over the tenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, we do well to note that many of the people we hagiographize from that grim day are the bÃªtes noires of today's political discourse: government workers.
The last decade has been marked by both peril and possibility, and in all of it there has been no shortage of American heroes. Many, if not the vast majority, worked for the government — as firefighters and police, as teachers and rescue workers. In the aftermath of Sept."‰11, 2001, men and women proudly wore hats and shirts labeled "FDNY" and "NYPD." When we wept for our nation, it was the bravery of the first responders that reminded us of our national character. There was a newfound respect for public service and a heartening change in how Americans viewed their government. Fire and police departments, and organizations such as the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps, saw a surge in applicants. We didn't just want to believe in those workers. We wanted to be them [Katrina vanden Heuvel, "Stop Bashing Government Workers," Washington Post, 2011.09.05].
So much for that spirit. We now soak in political discourse that deems a firefighter's desire to use colletive bargaining to get a decent pension as something just shy of treason. This denigration of public servants is just one aspect of a larger campaign to undermine our confidence in all public institutions and win power for partisans obsessed with nothing but gold, guns, and (strangely for Ayn-Randians) God:
A couple of years ago, a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) what the method was to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in obstructing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress's generic favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner.
...[T]he long-term Republican strategy of undermining confidence in our democratic institutions has reaped electoral dividends. The United States has nearly the lowest voter participation among Western democracies; this, again, is a consequence of the decline of trust in government institutions - if government is a racket and both parties are the same, why vote? And if the uninvolved middle declines to vote, it increases the electoral clout of a minority that is constantly being whipped into a lather by three hours daily of Rush Limbaugh or Fox News. There were only 44 million Republican voters in the 2010 mid-term elections, but they effectively canceled the political results of the election of President Obama by 69 million voters [Mike Lofgren, "Goodbye to All That: Reflections of a GOP Operative Who Left the Cult," Truthout, 2011.09.03].
Government does big, important things. Saving lives, clearing rubble, creating jobs, stimulating the economy when the private sector alone can't—we can do all these things by working together, through government.
And if we don't?
Ask yourselves -- where would we be right now if the people who sat here before us decided not to build our highways, not to build our bridges, our dams, our airports? What would this country be like if we had chosen not to spend money on public high schools, or research universities, or community colleges? Millions of returning heroes, including my grandfather, had the opportunity to go to school because of the G.I. Bill. Where would we be if they hadn't had that chance?
How many jobs would it have cost us if past Congresses decided not to support the basic research that led to the Internet and the computer chip? What kind of country would this be if this chamber had voted down Social Security or Medicare just because it violated some rigid idea about what government could or could not do? How many Americans would have suffered as a result?
No single individual built America on their own. We built it together. We have been, and always will be, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all; a nation with responsibilities to ourselves and with responsibilities to one another. And members of Congress, it is time for us to meet our responsibilities [President Barack Hussein Obama, address to Congress, transcribed as delivered, Politico.com, 2011.09.08].
Numerous government employees ran toward fire on September 11, 2001. They are the instruments of the government we create to do big things together. They are us. Government is us.