The central claim of the right has long been that bureaucracy is the chief impediment to free enterprise — that big government too frequently gums up the works of a society that would be much more productive if left alone. As President Reagan put it in his inaugural address in 1981, ‘government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.’ Conservatives have, in turn, argued that government undermines the core values of hard work and perseverance that arise naturally in flourishing communities — that bureaucracy disrupts the innovative spirit that might otherwise thrive.
The left, on the other hand, is inspired by a different view: that lack of opportunity is the nation’s most pressing challenge, and that government has an important role to play in steering the nation toward a more widely shared prosperity. Notwithstanding a new focus on the culture of poverty, liberals have largely argued that better education, nutrition, health care, and infrastructure are crucial elements of the public mandate.
Both arguments, however, are predicated on the same notion: that the country should pursue a strategy that allows more Americans to tap into the strength and innovative spirit that is organically borne in their local communities. While conservatives may argue that the best thing government can do is get out of the way, and liberals may believe that the proper strategy is to provide additional opportunity, both sides presume that the spirit of Tocquevillian community fuels the society at large. But in a nation bereft of middle rings, that assumption may no longer apply.