In A Necessary Evil, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Garry Wills shows that distrust of government is embedded deep in the American psyche. From the revolt of the colonies against king and parliament to present-day tax revolts, militia movements, and debates about term limits, Wills shows that American antigovernment sentiment is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of our history. By debunking some of our fondest myths about the Founding Fathers, the Constitution, and the taming of the frontier, Wills shows us how our tendency to hold our elected government in disdain is misguided.
In a masterful extended essay, Wills, an accomplished analyst of the American political psyche (and winner of a 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Lincoln at Gettysburg), explores, in all its guises, the great American distrust of government. Antigovernment sentiment is owned by neither the left nor the right, Wills explains: in the 1960s, for example, radicals adopted anti-government values, and Southern conservatives, though steeped in the tradition of states' rights, switched gears to affirm the authority of the federal government to wiretap, arrest and otherwise harass the radicals. The debate over the proper size and reach of the federal government is a moving target, but Wills hits it bulls-eye in chapter after chapter, whether he's debunking the mythology that has grown up around the militias that fought in the Revolutionary War (he argues that the Continental Army played a much more vital role) or clarifying the principles that undergird the separation of powers. He conceived of this book in reaction to the 1994 congressional election, feeling that the Republican Party's Contract With America embodied not a healthy wariness of power but a calcified, and dangerous, antigovernmentalism. Americans, Wills argues, need to stop "demanding from government qualities that should be sought, primarily, in other aspects of our social life." He asks readers to value the federal government for the things it can provide, from the quotidian (the highway system) to the majestic (equal protection under the law). Ultimately, his book is an eloquent plea for the maturity that would enable Americans, after more than 200 years, to view government as "a necessary good."