Saturday, May 15, 2010

Why Americans Hate Government
When I was in college, very long ago now, I read a great book which I still have around here somewhere titled "Why Americans Hate Politics." Revisiting the subject almost a decade after its publication, author E.J. Dionne described his book thusly:

In Why Americans Hate Politics, published on the eve of the 1992 election and which the editors have asked me to revisit here, I argued that voters were tired of the false choices presented by an ideologically driven "either/or" politics, and impatient with a political debate that emphasized "issues" over "problems." Issues were used at election time to divide voters. Problems demand solutions after the election is over. Following Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., I argued that most Americans preferred to see politics as involving "the search for remedy."

The book saw conservatives as suffering from a deep tension between their free-market, antigovernment libertarian wing and a traditionalist wing more interested in defending values that had come under attack in the 1960s than in market economics. Liberals were also in trouble. While their core programs (Medicare, Social Security, help for the needy, equal rights) were broadly popular, the left had stopped justifying its efforts in the name of values to which most Americans subscribed?work, family stability, consequences for criminal behavior, and a respect for the old-fashioned bonds of locality and neighborhood.

With both parties to the debate in difficulty, politics worked itself out as a series of wars. Conservatives might not unite around a program, but they could agree to roll back liberalism. To do so, they used tensions in American life over race, gender equality, and cultural change (or "race, rights and taxes," as Thomas and Mary Edsall put it plainly) to divide the liberal camp and hive off working class voters suspicious of liberalism?s core values. Liberals often played into conservative hands by seeming to deny that a virtuous community depended on virtuous individuals and by opposing changes in the welfare state aimed at reinforcing certain values (work and family stability among them).

Almost twenty years after its publication, though, I'm wondering if now maybe it's government, not politics, that we hate. After all, voter participation has gone back up from its '90s-era lows. Fox News and MSNBC offer 24 hour intensive politics-based entertainment, and they're doing great. The 2008 Obama campaign drew in millions of energized young Americans whose feelings toward politics, at least politics that year, were closer to love. The Tea Party movement of the current moment similarly has thousands, maybe millions, fired up and ready to go. Government, however, is all but universally reviled: the Zombie Army took out Bob Bennett last weekend in Utah, evidently for the crime of being a three-term incumbent who showed occasional interest in legislating rather than devoting every moment to mindless partisanship, while the Democratic primary electorate might be poised to do the same to Arlen Specter this coming Tuesday in my native state of Pennsylvania. Anyone associated with Washington, or incumbency in any form, is tarred; all alleged bums must be thrown out, regardless of whether they're even actually bums.

What's intensely troubling is that this detestation for government comes at a moment when there's reason to conclude that it's performing better than has been the case in years and years. We've avoided the second Great Depression many had feared was imminent in late 2008, to the point where the economy might create more jobs this year than was the case through eight years of the Bush administration (a factoid that's rife with caveats, but still). Health care is done, after more than sixty years of trying. Financial reform looks likely to pass, and to be meaningful. Even before those two significant legislative landmarks, Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute was calling this Congress one of the most productive in nearly fifty years.

So what's the rage about? Unlike some on the left, I don't think it's primarily much having to do with race. The right-leaning Tea Party crowd is almost all white, and no doubt racist sentiment is more prevalent within its ranks than outside, but the real issue is an emotional (and irrational, and painfully uninformed) reaction to profound socioeconomic and cultural change. People who've come up to see themselves as the built-in societal winners perceive a loss of status, and they're mad as hell about it. On the left, the Obama administration's perpetuation, and indeed intensification, of some of the worst Bush/Cheney anti-terror/civil liberties practices is demoralizing disillusioning at best and infuriating at worst. And his nomination of a footprints-free careerist of no discernible conviction like Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court certainly demotivates me from wanting to give time or money to ensure Obama continues to enjoy a Democratic Congress.

I know this is irrational, yet I defer to it. And maybe that's the crux of the problem: nobody, not even this president with his unique gifts as a communicator, is consistently out making the case for the nature of government as something of which we shouldn't expect emotional satisfaction, just considered attention to the nation's needs and appropriate, efficient, effective action in response to its problems. If the country doesn't need a full-blown civics lesson and high-level debate over what size of and role for governance is best, at least it could benefit from seeing a brighter spotlight shone upon the frankly mad practices of the legislature that both gum up the works and perpetuate the agita.

To go back to Dionne and "Why Americans Hate Politics," toward the end of the book he called for "a new political center" to merge the public's "liberal instincts" and "conservative values." What I think would be more helpful now is a new, reality-based assessment of government: judging it on results rather than the bug-eyed fear and loathing on the right or the unrealistic expectations on the left, and a commitment to making it work better for whoever is in charge--meaning the elimination of nonsense like secret Senate holds, possible reconsideration of the filibuster rule, and imposition of the presidential line-item veto. On the outside, the key might be simply remembering that ultimately government is our creature and a reflection of our collective will. I've thought that since Obama took office, explaining this--restoring government's good name--was his historical mission; earlier this month, at a commencement speech at the University of Michigan, he gave it a good first shot. Perhaps with an improving economy and effective repetition, the message will take; if it doesn't, I fear we're condemned to keep riding the roller coaster of uninformed public sentiment, with crashes and injury the near inevitable result.

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