Vail Daily column: Maternal side of government

Jack Van Ens

“Government is the enemy,” declared former Republican Sen. Bill Cohen, “until you need a friend.” We depend on Uncle Sam but don’t want too thick a friendship until we need him.

“Americans talk like Jeffersonians but expect to be governed by Hamiltonians,” wrote George Will, a conservative commentator.

Like Jefferson, we desire minimal government until our creature comforts are reduced. Then we endorse smart, expansive government, as Alexander Hamilton advocated.

“Our political institutions work remarkably well. They are designed to clang against each other. The noise is democracy at work,” observed journalist Michael Novak. Conservatives heighten the decibel level when they conjure up a past in which 19th century America is portrayed as an unregulated entrepreneurial paradise.

Republican Liz Cheney in “Republicans, Get Over the 2012 Loss — and Start Fighting Back,” described this mythic America. She warns Republicans not to squander core values of “limited government, low taxes, a strong national defense, individual freedoms, self-reliance, the importance of family and the miracle and authority of America’s founding documents” (The Wall Street Journal op-ed, March 29, 2013).

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Cheney’s self-made quintessential American looks like fictional icon Paul Bunyan. This fabled woodsman acted as if he didn’t need government. Bunyan hacked taxes, cut spending and chipped away at all problems, using only his sharp ax and ox Babe. Uncle Sam didn’t get in his way.

This is the conservative interpretation of 19th century Americana. Pioneers acted like self-sufficient loners. Historical fact, however, contradicts such bogus history. Government sustained, nurtured and strengthened pioneers, like a good mother or father.

History relates how 19th century pioneers relied on Uncle Sam to sell them cheap land. They depended on government subsidized railroads to bring crops to market. They leaned on government projects in the arid West to pump water for crops. Pioneers weren’t Paul Bunyans. They found identity in communities which survived and prospered because of Uncle Sam’s aid.

Jefferson scholar Merrill Petersen studied Henry Clay, an early 19th century political leader. Abraham Lincoln admired Clay because he sponsored public-private partnerships. His epic success was unlike the “individual liberty” interpretation of this period Cheney and the tea party fabricate.

Clay’s “youthful economy, like the American, required the fostering hand of government,” writes Petersen. “It believed a republican government responsive to the interests of the people ought to promote employment, productivity and wealth; it believed that national government, in particular, should assume a positive role in opening up promising lines of economic growth in advance of market forces” (The Great Triumvirate: Webster, Clay and Calhoun, p. 69). Henry Clay called this view of government assisting citizens the American system.

Conservatives spread errant history. It’s false that individual liberties were preserved at the expense of government building community and promoting social and economic justice.

“We disparage the federal government,” writes its supporter E. J. Dionne Jr., “and then heap praise and honor on our men and women in uniform, who represent the most self-sacrificing part of that government. More prosaically, we demand that government do less and spend less, even as we demand that it do more: for the elderly, for the unemployed, for education of our children, for eradication of disease, for safeguarding our natural environment, for protecting consumers, for preventing financial fraud and abuse” (Our Divided Political Heart, p. 256).

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in his 1936 Democratic National Convention speech, declared “Governments can err; presidents do make mistakes, but the immortal Dante tells us that divine justice weights the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted on different scales. Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.”

Why, then, do conservatives chide government when we want to be judged by our best strengths, not worst weaknesses? Why not weigh Uncle Sam by a similar set of balances?

Stand for smart government, the kind that promotes the common good, fosters social justice, reduces wealth inequality and levels the playing field so that the privileged few don’t commandeer opportunity.

The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (, which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations.

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