The new game for U.S. government

America is a nation coming of age. The country is on the verge of a rite of passage, the new millennium. It’s a passage lined with the web of a technologically bound society; civilization through fiber optic connections. And, as with any coming-of-age story, the parents are a little unsure of what to do with themselves when their role as nurturer and protector is no longer necessary.
The role of government in this country is changing as the needs of its increasingly self-sufficient constituency change. Individuals have the capacity to sit in their living rooms and do business with Burma over e-mail or manage their banking over the phone. The citizenry is more isolated and more globally connected than ever before.
We are faced with a growing economy, the decentralization of many government programs and a technological revolution which threatens to make the functions of modern government obsolete. The new millennium presents the opportunity for the country’s government to characterize what it will be in the 21st century.
Both political parties are calling for a new, streamlined government. And both parties want to take the credit. Government downsizing is more a consequence of modern culture than the foresight of the current legislature or administration. It is time to start thinking past government downsizing toward what the citizens believe should be the nature of government in the new century.
The function of government historically depends greatly on defending its borders. But the up-and-coming generation has not seen its national sovereignty threatened or its homeland in jeopardy. It has instead seen its government go out and defend others in the name of human rights, capitalism and democracy around the world. The Cold War has turned to awkward co-existence among many former enemies. The number of countries falling together into global peacekeeping and cooperative organizations is testament to the changing nature of governance.
The capacity for apocalyptic confrontation has greatly tendered the possibility of it ever happening. National borders, and the need to defend them, are diminishing. There will always be conflicts and power plays, but after years of amassing and creating weaponry more and more powerful, the anti-climax was inevitable.
And it has left us a little bored. There is always a good government scandal (even pre-Flowers/Whitewater/Jones/Lewinsky) to steam up the coffee-break chatter, but it seems those conversations are of less and less substance. The powerful Oz doesn’t have anything all that interesting to say. And so even the elves are restless (pardon the mixed metaphor), and congressional and administration infighting, accusations and shenanigans increasingly become the focus of our conversations about government when what we should be talking about is the ever-looming future.
The press doesn’t seem to be ready to face it. While Congress may be restless, the news media have reacted even more visibly to the boredom over government and the absence of the threat of war’s dramatic flair. They are erring on the side of vaudevillian entertainment. A puppet show starring the president is the main attraction in a scramble to recreate fascination with the actions of the government, the foundation for much of what the media deem news.
Even Iraq isn’t enough to fill up the perceived public need for drama. The government is able to show off its capability, to make a public display of the accomplishments of the leadership in protecting and defending the nation. But the reality is that Iraq is not threatening U.S. soil. The potential conflict comes out of the country’s self-characterization as global big brother.
A more real threat is the economic crisis going on in Southeast Asia. If we are to make use of our advancements to surmount the distances between us, we must make sure that there is someone to be trading with. This responsibility is shared among nations. The International Monetary Fund is a floating troubleshooter in the modern age. And, though the crisis is real, our economic situation is good and we are able to withstand some period of concern. Besides, we have some faith in the modern moneychangers. Remember, we can bank over the phone. We have ATMs now. Instant gratification is a great way to keep folks from complaining.
So where, again, is the American government in this scenario? President Clinton says, “I’m going to change the role of government. We’re not going to do nothing, but we’re not going to try to do everything.” Hands-off governance is in fashion.
And the battle over who gets credit for government downsizing rages on. Republicans are suspicious of the president’s language about cutting government because they don’t want him to be getting the credit for the inevitable. They’d like to keep the credit in their own corner. Sen. Charles A. Grassley, R-Iowa, commented on the President’s recent budget proposals, calling them evidence of the continuation of “big government.”
But the credit for government downsizing is found in the direction, spearheaded by technological capabilities that the American culture is taking, whether it’s popular or not. The politicians would love us to think it was their idea.
The technology isn’t determining what direction our government is taking, but it is changing the nature of what we need and how we communicate. At every turn in the growth of the nation, industrial and technological advancements have shaped our culture. Henry Ford’s little invention changed the culture of the city. The cars being mass produced started getting us out to the suburbs. Today, the Internet is keeping us in our living rooms, being actually more communicative than ever.
As individuals we look to our government to give us the power we need to survive, be safe and to achieve success, the American dream. But increasingly individuals have the power to shape their destinies. The federal government is doing their part in passing control for programs like welfare to the state level. Individuals have access to the information which is the commodity of the new millennium. And the economy is stable enough to leave room for other discussions.
The future for modern government may include more than the subsistence issues like defense. Environmentalism and the balanced budget proposal are examples of government cleaning up after itself. This is only one of the directions the governance of the country could take. The redefinition of the functions of government is inevitable in this changing time. And it’s no political coup that this is happening.
Our needs have changed, and our government is floundering, not understanding how to change with them. And, really, only the American people can guide the way.
Christine Tomlinson is the Daily’s opinions page editor. She welcomes comments at [email protected]