By now you have probably heard of the interesting sentence spoken by former governor Jim Hunt in a promotional video shown at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. “Government’s the only thing we all belong to,” he observed about four minutes into a five-minute film made to cast the convention’s host city in a good light. When I ran across a reference to these words on the internet, I decided to follow up. Here is the quotation in context:
We are committed to all people. We do believe you could use government in a good way. Government’s the only thing that we all belong to. We have different churches, different clubs, but we’re together as a part of our city, or our county, or our state and our nation.
I don’t think Governor Hunt regarded these words as extraordinary or controversial. After all, you don’t pick fights in a film that amounts to an infomercial for your state’s capital city. It wasn’t an attack ad or a propaganda piece in the usual sense.
Nevertheless and not surprisingly, the remark didn’t agree with Republicans or with anyone else who regards government as something that’s necessary but not benign. It’s not something they would ever want to belong to. Governor Chris Christie’s response gives you a sense of how the other side feels about this kind of comment:
I’m never the smartest person in the room. It’s a great relief, not only to me, but to all of you as well. I’m never the smartest person in the room, and I never got the best grades in school. But this much I understood from my history lessons, that we didn’t belong to the government. The government belongs to us.
If you’ve read The Jeffersonian long enough, you know I agree with Governor Christie. In satisfying social relationships that bring people together in groups, belonging runs in two directions. Spouses belong to each other, family members belong to each other. We belong to our country, and our country belongs to us. In a business contract, the parties do not belong to each other. You do not belong to your boss, nor does your boss belong to you. The government’s relationship to the people it serves is like a business relationship. The people hire public servants to do certain jobs. You might say with Governor Christie that the institutions of government belong to us, because we have developed these institutions over such a period of time.
What’s significant here is that Governor Hunt saw these words as entirely non-controversial, whereas his opponents are horrified by them. Totalitarian governments worked hard through propaganda and public displays of unity to persuade people to identify themselves with the state, to align the state’s interests with their own. Ein volk, ein reich, ein fuhrer: one people, one nation, one leader. Interestingly, the word reich rolls state, nation, empire, and government into one comprehensive concept of public power. If you belong to a reich, you belong to everything.
You might say comparisons between America’s movement away from democracy and Germany’s movement toward hell are overdrawn and tiresome, but the changes occurring here in America are too numerous to overlook. America’s movement toward statism – that is, growth in and faith in state power – has become so obvious that even those who help bring this growth about have noted it. Eisenhower’s and Truman’s warnings about the national security state in the early 1960s come to mind. Think of what has happened to our country since then.
People say that America is still the greatest nation on earth. If they mean it, their indictment of the rest of the world could not be worse. Other nations in our league do not torture their prisoners, assassinate their own citizens, or assassinate nationals in other countries based on specially drawn hit lists. Other countries that call themselves democracies do not invade, threaten, coerce or occupy weaker rivals as a matter of policy. If America is still the greatest nation on earth, the world has undergone a huge degradation in political morals under our leadership and oversight. Does great power actually bring extra responsibilities? If so, has our country acquitted those responsibilities honorably? Is ruthlessness the sign of an exceptionally capable empire builder, or an exceptionally corrupt one?
Governor Hunt’s eight words – “Government’s the only thing we all belong to” – became one more internet flap in a long campaign. Add it to “You didn’t build that,” and “the 47 percent.” Each side pounces on the flap that helps it recruit voters. Now we’ve counted the votes. We can analyze the campaign’s words with a bit more detachment. Analysis of Jim Hunt’s words, especially if we include the context quoted above, largely supports Republican criticisms of the way Democrats often think about government. Governor Christie’s conclusion is in fact consistent with our history: we have not traditionally thought of government as something we all belong to.
Let’s look at Jim Hunt’s words another way, though. Let’s take them as a description of where we are now as a nation. The authoritarian, activist and ultimately totalitarian impulse has progressed so far that government actually is the only thing that unites us. Our churches don’t, our clubs don’t, but our governments do. Governor Hunt highlighted something so obvious and pervasive we could not see it. We citizens have become one people, not under God, but under the state’s care and oversight. In doing so, we have become people of the government, by the government, and for the government, and we shall perish from the earth.