Government for the people

As the N.C. General Assembly convened for this year’s legislative session, some political analysts noted that it seems to lack a central “theme.” Last year, the argument goes, the theme was lobbying and ethics reform. During previous years, lawmakers were consumed with overcoming big budget shortfalls brought on by an economic downturn and the federal government’s irresponsible fiscal policies.

Now, however, with state revenues somewhat more stable, a veteran legislator recognized for his integrity leading the long-troubled state House, and so many political types caught up in the national debate about an unpopular war and the 2008 presidential sweepstakes, North Carolina appears poised for a rather “vanilla” session taken up with the standard fare of taxes, appropriations, bond packages and the like.

But that’s not written in stone. Many important political advances have resulted from intentional acts by groups and individuals with the vision to move beyond circumstances, helping chart a new and innovative course. One need only consider the visionaries who built North Carolina’s university system, its state highways and the Research Triangle Park, or those who helped lift the state out of the Great Depression—and, later, drag it out of its ugly traditions of racism and segregation.

This year, state leaders have another opportunity to confirm the power of an assertive, can-do brand of policy-making. Much like their peers in Congress who seem ready to abandon (or at least de-emphasize) the politics of selfishness and attack, North Carolina lawmakers can rescue state policymaking from its pessimistic, minimalist present and jump-start a dormant tradition of activist, public problem solving.

Whether it’s aggressive action to modernize the state’s increasingly obsolete tax structure or to, once and for all, guarantee health insurance and a sound basic education to every child in the state, North Carolina policy-makers have a chance to make the themes of recent sessions seem insignificant by comparison.

Ultimately, however, sustained commitment to an aggressive to-do list of new policies and programs will be tough to muster without inspiration. For this, North Carolina would do well to turn to one of America’s most insightful and principled voices for hope and progress: veteran journalist, writer and thinker Bill Moyers.

In December, at a special event convened by a group of national think tanks, the former presidential press secretary and ordained Baptist minister delivered a speech titled “The Democracy Promise: 40 Ways to Strengthen America’s Democracy,” calling on thinking and caring Americans to help construct a new theme for political action—what he termed “a new story” for America. But Moyers’ argument is just as relevant for North Carolina as it is for the nation as a whole. Here are some highlights.

On the election results: “Whatever one might say about the election, the real story is one that our political and media elites are loath to acknowledge or address. … America needs something more right now than a ‘must-do’ list from liberals and progressives. America needs a different story.”

On Americans’ current attitudes: “Everywhere you turn, you’ll find people who believe they have been written out of the story. Everywhere you turn, there’s a sense of insecurity grounded in a gnawing fear that freedom in America has come to mean the freedom of the rich to get richer even as millions of Americans are dumped from the Dream. … The leaders and thinkers and activists who honestly tell that story and speak passionately of the moral and religious values it puts in play will be the first political generation since the New Deal to win power back for the people.”

Moyers on government: “Government … is not simply the way we express ourselves collectively but also often the only way we preserve our freedom from private power and its incursions. … No one understood this more clearly … than Abraham Lincoln, who called on the federal government to save the Union. He turned to large government expenditures for internal improvements—canals, bridges and railroads. He supported a strong national bank to stabilize the currency. He provided the first major federal funding for education, with the creation of land-grant colleges. And he kept close to his heart an abiding concern for the fate of ordinary people, especially the ordinary worker but also the widow and orphan. Our greatest president kept his eye on the sparrow. He believed government should be not just ‘of the people’ and ‘by the people’ but ‘for the people.’

On the challenge we confront: “Here in the first decade of the 21st century, the story that becomes America’s dominant narrative will shape our collective imagination—and hence our politics. In the searching of our souls demanded by this challenge, [we] must confront the most fundamental progressive failure of the current era: the failure to embrace a moral vision of America based on the transcendent faith that human beings are more than the sum of their material appetites; that our country is more than an economic machine; and that freedom is not license but responsibility—the gift we have received and the legacy we must bequeath.

“Democracy works when people claim it as their own.”

In sum, Moyers calls for a revival of the basic idea that government exists to serve all of society—not just people of wealth or power or property. If the General Assembly follows his lead, the current session could be anything but vanilla.

[Rob Schofield is director of research and policy development for the Raleigh-based nonprofit NC Policy Watch. He has more than two decades’ experience as a lawyer, lobbyist, policy analyst, writer and trainer.]

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