September 5, 2011

Two thousand and eleven has been one of the toughest years for public workers that I can remember. Every month until this past one, the private sector has added jobs, and every month the public sector has lost them. The August employment report shows that the public sector got hit hard again — losing 17,000 jobs. In states across the country, public workers aren’t just being laid off; they’re being made into economic scapegoats. These workers deserve to be treated fairly any time. But in the wake of Hurricane Irene, as we watched teams of federal, state and local government workers tirelessly saving lives, and on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, they deserve much better.

The last decade has been marked by both peril and possibility, and in all of it there has been no shortage of American heroes. Many, if not the vast majority, worked for the government — as firefighters and police, as teachers and rescue workers. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, men and women proudly wore hats and shirts labeled “FDNY” and “NYPD.” When we wept for our nation, it was the bravery of the first responders that reminded us of our national character. There was a newfound respect for public service and a heartening change in how Americans viewed their government. Fire and police departments, and organizations such as the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps, saw a surge in applicants. We didn’t just want to believe in those workers. We wanted to be them.

In the 10 years since, those and other public workers haven’t been any less heroic or any less essential. But they have been significantly less appreciated, even demonized. “There are a lot of government employees that need to go find a real job,” Rep. Paul Broun (Ga.), a Tea Party favorite, snorted in June. For too many on the right, a government worker isn’t a worker at all.

This, more than anything, comes from a broadening acceptance that government can do no good. Anti-tax zealot Grover Norquist infamously called for government to be made so small that it could be drowned in a bathtub. But even within the far-right fringes, it used to be the case that government, though small, was supposed to serve essential functions. Chief among them: Providing security to its citizens, doing for the people what no private corporation could.

There was a time, for example, that disaster relief money was a foregone conclusion. And yet here we are, in the wake of a hurricane that has devastated parts of New York and Vermont, being told by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) that disaster aid can come only after spending cuts. As Paul Krugman rightly notes, “In effect, Mr. Cantor and his allies are threatening to take hurricane victims hostage, using their suffering as a bargaining chip.”

It used to be the case that the Federal Aviation Administration could count on Congress to fund it and that it wouldn’t be held hostage to political posturing. Not anymore. We spent two weeks with furloughed FAA workers because Republicans refused to approve funding for their work. This month, that same story is playing out, only for workers on federal highway projects.

When it is convenient, government and government workers are praised, as in the case of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), who lauded FEMA workers as “very responsive” in preparing for Hurricane Irene. When it isn’t, they are attacked, as in the case of the same Gov. Christie, who spent most of his career bashing government workers, and whose signature achievement has been to slash benefits for public-sector unions.

It’s hard to imagine what government would be like in the face of crisis were the Tea Party in control of more than just the House of Representatives. Would it have defunded the National Weather Service, making it impossible to know where the hurricane would hit and who would need to flee from harm’s way? Would it have defunded the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as one of their heroes, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), has called for, and instead opted to “be like 1900,” as he described it? If the Tea Party had its way, might there have been too few first responders on 9/11?

Government isn’t just about first responders, of course. When our public school teachers are constantly asked to do more with less, when they work to prepare the next generation for an uncertain economic future, they deserve our deepest gratitude. When regulators prevent corporations from spilling chemicals and oil and waste into our rivers and oceans, we should sing their praises. When bureaucrats at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau stand up to the big banks, we should stand alongside them.

There’s no question that, in any number of ways, government lets us down. Our leaders have too often stacked government against the interests of working people in favor of corporate elites. But was it overpaid and undertaxed CEOs who saved flood victims or rushed into the towers? Our impulse should not be to renounce government; it should be to recapture and restore it.

It is time for the era of despised government to end.

Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of the Nation magazine, writes a weekly online column for The Post.