If the Republican presidential race has made one thing clear, it is that the GOP narrative for 2012 will be that the federal government is the "problem" -- as Ronald Reagan once said -- if not worse, an internal enemy that must be defeated. So far, the Democrats lack a counter-narrative with similar appeal to a deeply alienated public.
The Republican narrative holds that the route to freedom and prosperity lies in the twin principles of states' rights and free markets. GOP frontrunner Rick Perry has even taken aim at Social Security and Medicare, two longtime bastions of federal social policy for the elderly.
It also has become Republican dogma that the wealthy "job creators" must be freed up from taxes and regulations. Supposed "moderate" Mitt Romney says he would slash taxes for corporations, make their overseas earnings tax-free, and eliminate the estate tax. Let Ayn Rand's vision of unchained corporate supermen lead America to some brighter day, the Republicans say.
The only way to counter this ascendant GOP narrative is to supply a counter-narrative, one that appeals to American values and makes sense.
Right now, the principal Democratic narrative is that the American people must work together as a community to solve the nation's problems -- with the government collaborating with the private sector as part of that effort.
However, the "community narrative" may not fit today's angry mood, especially when many white middle-class Americans feel they are being pushed down the economic ladder and are thus open to propaganda blaming scapegoats, whether dark-skinned people or the "guv-mint."
A different narrative would note that many of today's rich made their wealth because of taxpayer-funded projects which created lucrative opportunities. This narrative would stress the fairness of expecting the rich to reimburse the taxpayers for both these past projects and to make possible new research and development aimed at keeping the nation competitive.
For instance, where would Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg or other online billionaires be today if the federal government had not built the Internet? Their wealth was made possible by government engineers, mostly working for middle-class salaries, who devised the Internet as part of a Defense Department project.
Shouldn't Zuckerberg and the others be expected to give a chunk of their money back to the country which made their fortunes possible -- and isn't the tax structure the most efficient way of ensuring that they do?
The same is true for Silicon Valley tycoons who made their money from personal computers, software and other technological advances. But the miniaturization of electronics behind modern computers was spurred by the space program in the 1960s, again sponsored by the taxpayers and developed by government engineers.
The federal government has played key roles, too, in the development of other industries, such as biochemistry. The government also built the nation's transportation system, including the Interstate Highway system, creating opportunities for businesses to expand nationally while also opening vast new tracts of land for home construction.
Government -- federal, state and local -- also is responsible for educating the American work force, thus saving companies untold billions that otherwise would have to be spent on job training. And, by protecting commerce around the globe, the U.S. military has enabled American corporations to expand without many of the risks from earlier eras.
Earlier generations of Americans understood and appreciated this government role in helping people and making the country stronger. Not only did Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal put millions of Americans to work during the Great Depression, those programs built lasting improvements to the national infrastructure, from still-operational bridges to rural electrification.
The post-World War II era also recognized the wisdom of having the rich tamp down their personal greed for the good of all. That was why, during Dwight Eisenhower's presidency, the top marginal income tax rate was about 90 percent. That meant that for the top tranche of income for the rich, they got to keep only 10 percent.
While that high a marginal tax rate may seem unfair by today's standards, it achieved some important goals. Not only did the tax money help the government pay off the debts from World War II, those taxes provided the means for the post-war expansion of America -- and the high tax rate represented a disincentive for destructive greed.
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