Americans hear a lot of negative rhetoric about their government – not only from the right but also from the left. Amy Fried reviews how conservatives, from Goldwater and Reagan to the Tea Party and Trump, undermined government to help themselves electorally and organizationally and move public policy rightward. But liberal public interest reformers in the 1970s also critiqued and fought government agencies. Paul Sabin tracks the role of Ralph Nader and environmental and good government groups in undermining New Deal liberalism by characterizing government’s role as helping regulated industries. They both say these twin critiques make it hard for anyone to argue for the government’s efficacy and expansion.

Guests: Paul Sabin, Yale University; Amy Fried, University of Maine

Studies: Public Citizens: The Attack on Big Government and the Remaking of American Liberalism; At War With Government: How Conservatives Weaponized Distrust from Goldwater to Trump


Matt Grossmann: How the left and right undermine trust in government, this week on the Science of Politics. For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann. Trust in the federal government declined as Americans heard more negative rhetoric about a government captured by special interests. That argument was perfected by Republicans who use distrust to advance conservatism from Goldwater and Reagan to the Tea Party and Trump. But liberal public interest reformers in the 1970s also critiqued and fought government agencies, removing the shine from ambitious governance. That may have left American politics with few defenders of big government.

This week, I talked to Paul Sabin of Yale University about his new Norton Book, Public Citizens: The Attack on Big Government and the Remaking of American Liberalism. He tracks the role of Ralph Nader, environmental, and good government groups in undermining New Deal liberalism by characterizing government’s role as helping regulated industries rather than advancing the public interest. But I also talked to Amy Fried of the University of Maine about her new Columbia book with Douglas Harris, At War with Government: How Conservatives Weaponized Distrust from Goldwater to Trump. She tells the more traditional story. Conservatives found a way to undermine government to help themselves electorally and organizationally and move public policy rightward. Fried argues that Republicans intended to build distrust and succeeded.

Amy Fried: Book does is it looks at the phenomena of distrust in government and argues that it’s not inadvertent or at least not completely inadvertent as a consequence of other kinds of phenomena. Instead what Doug Harris and I argue is that Republican leaders have made an attempt over many decades to promote and employ distrust in government for four strategic purposes. And those four purposes are to use the trust organizationally to build a maintain organizations, in elections as an electoral argument and set of set of appeals. Also institutionally in order to argue that certain institutions they don’t occupy does, that those don’t deserve trust, and in fact should be the objects of distrust and then to shift power towards the institutions they do control. And then also as part of policy arguments. That’s really the key argument there.

Along with it though, there’s a larger historical context that Americans have often distrusted government. That there’s nothing really unusual about that. You can go back to the very early days of the republic even before the republic was formed. And that it’s a complex between political elites and a distrustful public, because on the one hand, it can be very helpful to rouse members of the public with these distrustful messages. At times, they can also get a bit out of hand and be difficult to control, and then those individuals will turn on some of the Republican leaders and maybe take them too far afield to extreme.

Matt Grossmann: But Sabin aimed to bring liberals into the explanation for the decline of government.

Paul Sabin: I wrote Public Citizens really to understand better the decline of a big government liberalism from between the Johnson presidency and Reagan, and just trying to make sense of that journey between the expansive government of that period and Reagan’s election. It’s often attributed now to the rise of conservatism and the election of Ronald Reagan, and there’s a popular story right now that positions liberals as defending the government and conservatives as attacking it. And what I was trying to show in the book is that the story is actually more complicated and that in the 1960s and 70s, liberals increasingly were attacking the government and they were trying to break up the coalition that was between big business and big government and labor. And that in order to understand the decline of what we consider the New Deal Order, this post-war administrative constellation of power, we need to look on the left as well as on the right.

And I come at this from an environmental perspective, so I should also emphasize that. A lot of the examples that I use are related to the rise of the environmental movement and trying to make sense of the way that the environmental movement was really attacking many of the achievements of big government liberalism, including the dams and the highways and redevelopment programs and water management programs, the spraying of pesticides. It was really an attack on the way that the government was using technology and science and its might in the post-war period, and rising up in resistance against that.

Matt Grossmann: Sabin was motivated By his prior work on the environmental movement and practical political concerns.

Paul Sabin: Work on the book also was influenced by my previous previous work. Before coming to Yale, I founded a nonprofit environmental leadership organization, and we were trying to reshape the environmental movement for the current moment, make it more diverse, help to think about it as more putting forward a positive agenda for environmental change, as opposed to simply being reactive and trying to assess what has worked and what hasn’t worked since the 1970s generation. So that certainly was in play, in thinking about this book, trying to make sense of what were the successes and what were the limitations of the founding generation of the environmentalist of the 60s and 70s.

Matt Grossmann: Fried and Harris built out of their work on the 1990s conflict between Clinton and Gingrich.

Amy Fried: That very first paper had to do with the Clinton administration, but it’s only later that the papers of that were available, and I went to Little Rock, Arkansas and spent a lot of time working in the archives. And Doug also had by then found a lot of papers, been working with a lot of papers from Gingrich and others. So we built upon this very, very early work, but really it goes back with the first publication 20 years ago,.

Matt Grossmann: Let’s dig into each story, starting with Sabin in the 1960s and 1970s, and the central role of Ralph Nader.

Paul Sabin: Nader is a terrific character for making sense of this. He bridges what I see as the public intellectuals of the early 1960s. People like Rachel Carson, Jane Jacobs, Nader, these people who wrote these big books that were criticisms of liberalism from the left or from liberalism itself. And then Nader, unlike Carson, who sadly died quite early after a silent spring, and Jacobs, who moved to Canada, Nader then becomes an organizational entrepreneur. So I think he is a fascinating character because of the way he bridges the big book writing public intellectual critic to the nonprofit advocacy entrepreneurs of the late 60s and the early 1970s. So he creates dozens of non-profit organizations and brings really thousands of young people into a public interest movement. And those groups go on to have lives independent of him.

And he in some ways gets left behind by the movement that he helps create, and by the end of the 1970s, I think that the institutionalization of the nonprofit advocacy movement is not a good match for Nader as a quirky, occasionally cranky critic who likes to have small organizations and chaotic systems, and the advocacy community becomes much more institutional with benefits packages and careers, and people anticipating they’re going to spend their lives in these organizations. Nader had much more of a churn mentality where young people would come in and leave, and that became less of a fit. But for the time period that I’m principally looking at in this book, between 65 and 80, Nader, I think, is a terrific character for making sense of the the rise of these set of organizations. And I think he was tremendously influential.

Matt Grossmann: The liberal groups saw themselves as creating a counterforce to government, even regularly suing government agencies.

Paul Sabin: And if you go back and look at the grant proposals to the Ford Foundation, which funded many of the early environmental groups, these proposals were very explicit about the need to watch over and sue and hold accountable the federal agencies. You look at the litigation docket of groups like the Environmental Defense Fund or the Natural Resource Defense Council, Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, in there in the early 1970s, 90% of their legal actions were directed at some government agency. And we can talk about why that was. I mean, certainly sometimes they were trying to also target an industry group that was behind the federal-

We’re trying to also target an industry group that was behind the federal action, but they were suing primarily, directly the federal agencies. If you look at the internal documents of the Ford foundation, it’s very explicit that they were trying to create a counterforce to government, and they talk in that language of government as being a problem, that you have to create this external third force outside of government that can watch over it, can hold it accountable, and can make it do the right thing. There’s a sense of it having lost its way, and Ford and the folks starring these groups were trying to create this counterforce.

Matt Grossmann: They were happy to gain influence, but realize later that they didn’t really change the system.

Paul Sabin: So they fought to get their seat at the table. I think that looking back on that, some of the folks who I interviewed, who were involved in starting these organizations and leading this legal advocacy movement have thought, “Well, maybe we took a bit of a misstep, because we didn’t actually build a larger social movement, we didn’t try to build political power. What we tried to do was just become one of the inside the beltway players, and that actually did not lead to the large scale transformation of the system or its outcomes that we wanted.”

At the same time, at the beginning, I think it’s just important to remember it was tremendously seductive. These small organizations, there’s one story I have of the James Morman was a lawyer at the Center for law and Social Policy, and they were suing to try to block the Alaskan pipeline. He describes when the temporary injunction gets put down how he fades off into this haze, the delusion, just how amazing it was. And this is a small group, they’re located… At first they have like a copier in the townhouse of one of their founders, they’re in these dingy… It’s barely even an organization that exists, and they’ve temporarily stopped one of the largest construction projects in American history. It was tremendously seductive, the power, and this was partly due to a receptive judiciary. One of the things that they would later learn was that that really wasn’t something that could be counted on. I think that was another misstep.

Matt Grossmann: Liberal public interest groups also played a role in the birth of post-materialism.

Paul Sabin: In some ways, it was deliberate and it was a redefinition of what material concerns are. I mean, certainly things like clean air and clean water and not getting poisoned by things, those can’t be much more material than that, but it was a shift away from a previous definition of material wellbeing that was primarily focused on wages and jobs and prices and things like that. And so, some of the struggles that they had with the labor unions themselves were trying to… It was an argument about what counted as material issues that influenced the workers. So you could take an example like black lung disease, and how hard should the union be fighting to protect worker health, as opposed to focusing solely on contractual jobs and wages and other agreements.

There was a sense in the union democracy movement and the union reform movement, someone like [inaudible 00:12:02], who is a really important character in this, who [inaudible 00:12:06] is closely tied with, that they need to broaden what issues were part of this. But it is a shift of what the issues were, and it did break up some of the material focus of the democratic coalition. And that’s part of the story that I’m trying to tell.

Matt Grossmann: Their arguments were tied to institutional reform, but they may not have gotten the results they wanted.

Paul Sabin: There was a close link between the messaging and the reforms, whether it came to campaign finance, Freedom of Information Act, sunshine laws, other NIPAH’s requirements for public participation and for environmental impact statements, the weakening of the committee chairs. All of these things were considered to be reforms that were necessary to break apart the power structure that was doing things that these folks thought were bad. I think it’s to recognize it as actually a deliberate strategy, but that looking back, I think that people have realized, some have realized that, well, actually, maybe the results of that were not what people want. And you see that with the return of earmarks, you see that with questioning or concern about what happens when you have of non-partisan redistricting commissions in some states, but not in other states?

Matt Grossmann: Liberals attacked government, despite believing in it.

Paul Sabin: The folks who I’m writing about, these liberal reformers, they truly believe in government, and the government is supposed to represent the public interest, and they want government to do things. That is a fundamental difference there. Their critique was that the government had been captured, that it was betraying the public interest. But I think what’s important to note, just in terms of thinking about the ways in which they actually were attacking the system is that they, very explicitly, were saying that big government, big labor, big business, that this was a coalition of forces that needed to be weakened, that needed to be broken apart, that needed to be challenges to it. So, there was a deliberate effort to weaken that system.

And so, I think that, I guess, is important to note. They wanted a different result, a very different result, and the Reagan conservatism and all that has followed from that is in many ways the opposite of what they would’ve wanted, but they were systematically trying to challenge and redirect powerful agencies that they thought were not representing the public.

Matt Grossmann: They ended up echoing conservative arguments against government.

Paul Sabin: You can look and you can see common rhetoric, and you can see also how it comes together in the deregulatory movement in the late ’70s, in which there’s a sense, there’s cartel, talk about how government is the cartel, government is the monopoly. You have Ted Kennedy talking about how you need to break up the ways in which government and business are working so closely together and not representing the consumer, not representing the public, the system. So, yeah, no, I mean, there is a common rhetoric there. I guess, the question is, what are they trying to aspire to? And what the liberal reformers are aspiring to was a reformed government that would still be active. Whereas the conservative movement was trying to pull back the government and not have it be doing anything, and they’d dismissed the idea that these were legitimate goals and purposes.

Matt Grossmann: Three degrees that liberals aren’t arguing as much against government, but have trouble finding a middle ground.

Amy Fried: There are some differences here in that what those groups do and the things that they argue, I mean, they actually want government to do more. They want government to do things better to hold private power to account, which is traditionally one of the purposes of government. In some ways, they’re not really arguing against government. They’re arguing about how government is operating in particular ways. I do think that a certain amount of skepticism towards government is a good thing. I mean, we’re in no way… Doug Harrison and I are no way arguing that people should give up skepticism in government or not try to hold government to account. That’s absolutely necessary in any Democratic system, any Republic to have the watchful eye of citizens on government.

It could be that there’s a more cross-pressured be you on the left, in views towards government, where there’s this skeptical eye while at the same time wanting government to accomplish more. And that’s a more difficult argument maybe to make than coming out and opposing the idea of government and big government, or government that’s effective in accomplishing things.

Matt Grossmann: Republicans are better able to use government when they’re in power, even if they undermine it, generally.

Amy Fried: I would point to distrust as an available resource for them, and there’s been enough cultivation of it that it’s available to be used in a relatively easily [inaudible 00:17:21] in certain ways, but I’d also say that one of the things that we point to is the situational nature of distrust, where certain parts of government deserve trust in sometimes and not in other times. It depends on the particular president who’s there and what kind of arguments that they’re making. And so, this institutional part of our argument, I think, is really important in this respect, so that, for example, when Newt Gingrich is trying to gain power for Republicans in Congress, he’s arguing that Congress is far too powerful and that is not the way the founders would want it to be. But once he becomes speaker, he flips quite quickly to arguing the importance of Congress for holding the president accountable. And you see similar shifts also with different leaders when it comes to presidential power, where Obama is painted in the GOP Party platform of 2016 as far too powerful, tyrannical, et cetera. And then there’s a wholesale shift to supporting presidential power when Trump becomes president.

Matt Grossmann: Conservative attacks focused on government as a whole, meaning they can co-exist within consistent views.

Amy Fried: I think one sort of strategy that’s very much predictable from political science research from, again, a very long time ago from the 1970s is that people tend to say they dislike government far more than they dislike particular government programs. So if you’re going to attack government, you attack government often with pretty broad brush kinds of criticisms, talk about socialism, Marxism, tyranny, that sort of thing, while it can be hard then to undermine particular government programs that are in fact very popular. But we also know that a lot of times people don’t register that certain things fit the category of government, think of Suzanne Mettler’s research on the submerged state. So this ability of people to hold contradictory views is very well established and it’s supported by these other kinds of dynamics.

Matt Grossmann: Trump is a manifestation of this pattern, but he takes it into new directions.

Amy Fried: We really do see Trump as fitting in many ways with this longer scale tendency and dynamic. However, he really is not the same. He really is different. He’s much more extreme and anti-democratic elements and just really much more overt xenophobia in attacking certain parts of the government that hadn’t been attacked before from the right, such as the FBI, sometimes the military, national security. So there are certainly a number of things where he’s very different. You couldn’t see… Like, our first very focused case study is Reagan and there’s some similarities, but Reagan as a former governor had had experience in governing and he wanted to govern. And he was interested and being able to accomplish certain things. And although he did promote distrust in government in certain ways, he certainly didn’t do it in the same ways. And he did not have that degree of… He did not have xenophobia. His farewell address upon leaving the presidency, talked about the openness of America as part of his vision of it as a shining city set on a hill and talked about immigrants as contributing to that. So there really have been some significant differences over time.

Matt Grossmann: Fried says there’s a long trajectory of racial views, coinciding with broad negative views of government.

Amy Fried: We do make the argument that race is always, or has long time been a part of these different arguments about trust and the uses of distrust in government. As you know, there is a lot of literature on the Tea Party. I think it’s sort of fascinating that the book that Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson wrote really picked up on the anti-immigrant kinds of attitudes in the Tea Party of people who were involved in the Tea Party, that that was something that I think hadn’t gotten that much attention. People saw the racialized messages with, let’s say posters of Obama as a African chieftain with a bone in his nose and some of the language that was used, but it was also connected with anti-immigrant messages and some messages aimed at younger people and their social values.

On the other hand, there have been cultural kinds of messages used by Republicans for quite a long time. I believe it was Nixon who ran against acid, amnesty and abortion. So you have some of those messages over a period of time, but if you look at what’s happened to the coalitions and the movement of the south, into the Republican Party, there’s obviously a greater divide between the parties based on issues around race and like Alan Abramowitz’s work is a great example of that. But there’s certainly lots of research on that.

So I do think, and we do make the argument that races is a part of what’s going on. And then we argue at the very end that there’s really not that much… There are some things that people try to do to reduce the impact of racialized messages, but that’s basically almost impossible to do anything about really. To counter this, you need to organize other people in other ways and make other kinds of arguments about government, more positive arguments about government that in some ways Democrats have often been very loath to do.

Matt Grossmann: But she sees a key turn in the Clinton Administration.

Amy Fried: When it comes to the broad sweep of things, I think the Gingrich years or the Clinton/Gingrich years are really an important turning point because you really start seeing very strategic-focused uses of distrusts in government during that time. And although the use of polling by presidents goes back a long way, Franklin Roosevelt’s administration used polling internally, both by bureaucracies and in politics. And actually my second book, Pathways to Polling has an awful lot about that, about the use of polling in those days. You don’t see as much use within Congress for quite a long time. And Gingrich was very much a strategist, I’m sure he sees himself that way. And he really emphasized these kinds of messages in order to run against the Democratic Congress and take control.

Matt Grossmann: Fried and Harris focus on Republican elites, but see a complex process.

Amy Fried: What we’re arguing is mostly an argument about political elites. It’s about what leaders are doing among Republicans, where there are other stories to be told about this whole situation, including what is happening or has happened on the left. It doesn’t preclude the use of distrust by the left, the arguments that we’re making. And it doesn’t portray citizens as unwitting pawns. We’re not at all saying that people are just completely subject to manipulation or anything like that. There’s a more complex relationship between leaders and citizens than that kind of story.

Matt Grossmann: Sabin sees it all as somewhat inevitable due to problems in the prior new deal system.

Paul Sabin: The new deal, or sort of post World War II system that it had within itself, the seeds of its own decline is part of what I’m arguing. And that’s why it was coming from both the left and the right, and that it was actually doing things that were problematic, whether it was building freeways through neighborhoods, like I said, or spraying pesticides early in the period, testing atomic weapons and spreading radiation. There were a lot of things going on that were very, very problematic coming out of the system. And so I do think that it was inevitable that there would be a rising up against that, whether we want to blame the public interest movement for Reagan, that’s a difficult thing to kind of sort out. I do think that they contributed to the rise of this conservatism because they were deliberate. And I say they were intentionally weakening the system that Reagan was also attacking. And so, I mean, it seems like that certainly contributed to Reagan’s ability to also attack that same system.

Matt Grossmann: Government was giving us reasons not to trust it. And it’s hard to make better.

Paul Sabin: It is not a coincidence that it came out, that this movement was founded during the first term of the Nixon Administration. Between 1968 and 1972 is when many of these public interest organizations that I write about were founded. And it’s the height of the Vietnam War. There’s a sense of a government that you can’t … Watergate then happens. You shouldn’t be trusting the government when they’re actively lying to you about very important things

So the idea that there would be a lack of trust is not … shouldn’t be a surprise that it would come out of this. And that’s why you have things like the Freedom of Information Act getting strengthened because there’s a need to force the secrets out of the government.

I guess the thing that I think is interesting that I want to emphasize about what I’m trying to say here is that there was a legitimate need or legitimate reasons for why the liberal reformers were challenging the system, why they were distrustful of the system, why they were trying to weaken it. But what they were trying to do was not take it down. They were trying to … And the thing, the great challenge, I guess, that I associate with the Carter Administration in particular, although I think it’s continued afterwards, is that, what I see Carter trying to do is balance the public interest critique with the idea of an act of government.

And I think ultimately he fails to sell this message, but what Carter tries to do, he brings all these liberal reformers into the government. He’s trying to initiate governmental actions to further the idea of the government protecting the public in various ways. But at the same time, he tries to institute constant process of reform that is internal. And I think there’s this one great moment when two things happen at the same time, is this one morning when Carter signs two bills, the Paperwork Reduction Act and the Superfund Law.

And I think this really just encapsulates what Carter was trying to achieve and the challenges of it. But he was, Superfund was an effort to have government actively address the hazardous pollution, hazardous waste, clean up the lands that have been polluted. Paperwork reduction was sort of the other side, was like, how do you reform the government?

And what’s interesting about Carter’s messages on that day is that he believed passionately in both of them. They both had deep resonances for him as an environmentalist and as a government reformer. And what Carter was trying to do was say that you could have Superfund and Paperwork reduction. And in fact, that’s what we had to aspire to. But I think that what happened was Superfund becomes the last big environmental law for a while. And then Paperwork Reduction becomes a tool for the Reagan conservatives to really try to roll back regulation.

Matt Grossmann: The bottom line is that it’s hard to defend the government while seeking to reform it.

Paul Sabin: One argument would be to say that all of these criticisms from both left and right of the government are minimal and should be disregarded, and we should just assert the benefits of the government and even, and sort of push aside our awareness of these flaws and just say that, okay, it’s compromised, not perfect, but is the best and we just have to support it. So that would be one message.

Another message that’s more complicated, but I think more accurate, which would be to try to incorporate the critique that I’m associating with these liberal reformers, critique of the government as having flaws, limitations, but ultimately being a force for good. But how do you then articulate a view of government that is both necessary, but also in a constant need for reform?

And I think that democrats have been sort of struggling with this latter message really since Carter, as I was describing, but I think Clinton reinventing government initiative was related to that, trying to both articulate a positive vision of government while also acknowledging the need for a reform of the government. And I think that more recently we’ve been seeing some of the first example where let’s just spend a lot of money. Let’s just do a lot of big things.

But I think underlying that are the other concerns, that they’re going to come back. And I think that’s true about things like the infrastructure bill could see that happening, where if you start looking more closely at some of the infrastructure ideas, might see, I don’t know, whether it’s highway proposals that … reconstruction or development that that may or may not make as great sense at closer examination or other things.

So I think that’s sort of how I see the struggle between those two different ways of defending government and the effort to try to take this nuanced one is very difficult to communicate.

Matt Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn.

The Science of Politics is available biweekly from the Niskanen Center and part of the Democracy Group Network. I’m your host, Matt Grossmann. If you liked this discussion, you should check out our previous episodes. Do Americans implicitly trust government, despite our public anger? Why Americans dislike government, even when it works? Are the democratic or republican parties becoming more similar or different, and how bureaucrats make good policy.

Thanks to Paul Sabin and Amy Fried for joining me. Please check out Public Citizens and At War With Government, and then listen in next time.