I just read an article in Slate by Jacob Weisberg that speaks directly to one of my biggest frustrations in political discussions: the fatalistic shoulder-shrugging platitude, “What do you expect? They’re all politicians and politicians are all the same.”
Well, politicians don’t spring out of the earth fully prepared with barometers and weather vanes. Politicians are created. We create them:
In trying to explain why our political paralysis seems to have gotten so much worse over the past year, analysts have rounded up a plausible collection of reasons including: President Obama’s tactical missteps, the obstinacy of congressional Republicans, rising partisanship in Washington, the blustering idiocracy of the cable-news stations, and the Senate filibuster, which has devolved into a super-majority threshold for any important legislation. These are all large factors, to be sure, but that list neglects what may be the biggest culprit in our current predicament: the childishness, ignorance, and growing incoherence of the public at large.
Anybody who says you can’t have it both ways clearly hasn’t been spending much time reading opinion polls lately. One year ago, 59 percent of the American public liked the stimulus plan, according to Gallup. A few months later, with the economy still deeply mired in recession, a majority of the same size said Obama was spending too much money on it. There’s nothing wrong with changing your mind, of course, but opinion polls over the last year reflect something altogether more troubling: a country that simultaneously demands and rejects action on unemployment, deficits, health care, climate change, and a whole host of other major problems. Sixty percent of Americans want stricter regulations of financial institutions. But nearly the same proportion says we’re suffering from too much regulation on business. That kind of illogic—or, if you prefer, susceptibility to rhetorical manipulation—is what locks the status quo in place.
The usual way to describe such inconsistent demands from voters is to say that the public is an angry, populist, tea-partying mood. But a lot more people are watching American Idol than are watching Glenn Beck, and our collective illogic is mostly negligent rather than militant. The more compelling explanation is that the American public lives in Candyland, where government can tackle the big problems and get out of the way at the same time. In this respect, the whole country is becoming more and more like California, where ignorance is bliss and the state’s bonds have dropped to an A- rating (the same level as Libya’s), thanks to a referendum system that allows the people to be even more irresponsible than their elected representatives. Middle-class Americans really don’t want to hear about sacrifices or trade-offs—except as flattering descriptions about how ready we, as a people, are, or used to be, to accept them. We like the idea of hard choices in theory. When was the last time we made one in reality?
The politicians thriving at the moment are the ones who embody this live-for-the-today mentality, those best able to call for the impossible with a straight face. Take Scott Brown, the newly elected Senator from Massachusetts. Brown wants government to take in less revenue: He has signed a no-new-taxes pledge and called for an across-the-board tax cut on families and businesses. But Brown doesn’t want government to spend any less money: He opposes reductions in Medicare payments and all other spending cuts of any significance. He says we can lower deficits above 10 percent of GDP—the largest deficits since World War II, deficits so large that they threaten our future as the world’s leading military and economic power—simply by cutting government waste. No sensible person who has spent five minutes looking at the budget thinks that’s remotely possible. The charitable interpretation is that Brown embodies naive optimism, an approach to politics that Ronald Reagan left as one of his more dubious legacies to Republican Party. A better explanation is that Brown is consciously pandering to the public’s ignorance and illusions the same way the rest of his Republican colleagues are.
Weisberg goes on to say that the problem is not limited to Republicans.
It’s a truly odd kind of contradiction in the national character of a people who, more than any other people in the world, built a nation by being willing to face the unknown, accept extraordinary hardships, and sacrifice comfort, security, safety, and certainty for a chance at something better, with no guarantee of success, that in recent years (and I’m using the word “recent” loosely — I think it’s at least since post-World War II), we do not seem to be able to tolerate any degree of difficulty or shared sacrifice. I don’t pretend to know the reason for it, but I do know that Jacob Weisberg is right when he suggests we get politicians instead of political leaders because we make it clear that’s what we want.
POSTSCRIPT: Bruce McQuain likes living in Candyland, thank you very much!