I don’t write about politics too often anymore; it is, to be diplomatically understated, a volatile subject, and I felt beaten down by a few folks when I made any post that took a stance they disagreed with, no matter how politely I attempted to put it. This led to me getting, well, less polite toward the end of the 2004 election cycle, followed by me taking a break from political commentary completely. By and large I haven’t returned to it.
Most people know that I lean to the left, politically speaking. I’ve joked once or twice that I seem to be somewhere between Green and Libertarian, which averages out to Democrat—but I don’t think of my positions as very radical I suspect in an earlier time I’d be a liberal Republican, but there’s simply no room in the modern Republican party for such an animal. What’s led me more toward the Democratic position, though, has simply been watching the world.
I grew up with oft-repeated talking points that I did internalize, at least in high school. Democrats love big government. Democrats are fiscally irresponsible. Democrats are soft on the military. Yet, when you actually look behind the common wisdom catechisms, it seems it was Clinton who zeroed out Reagan’s immense federal deficit, Clinton who made the most headway in reducing the size of government in any post-Vietnam administration, Clinton who declared “the era of big government is over” and made at least modest feints at keeping true to that.1 And it’s our current president who’s done the most to expand government spending including non-military discretionary budget items, like the welfare programs conservatives love to hate.
Pointing this out to folks who like to believe Democrats are the Party Of All Evil tends to earn you hostility. But to paraphrase Don Rumsfeld, you extrapolate from the facts you have, not the facts you wish for.
Conservatives weren’t intrinsically anti-government earlier in the last century, but post-Vietnam, healthy skepticism turned to not-so-healthy outright hatred. The Republicans have spent three decades very successfully promulgating the idea that the proper attitude toward your government is cynicism and contempt: nothing the government can try to do to help citizens will help them, regulation is explicitly designed to harm you, no politician ever seeks higher office in the interest of public service. This has been so successful, in fact, that it’s not only been the animating force of the “Republican revolution,” it’s taken as clear-as-day gospel truth by nearly every third party. There are aspects of standard Green rhetoric which are just about interchangeable with standard Libertarian rhetoric.
But here’s the rub. While there’s a very good case to be made that the Bush administration is not conservative in the way Barry Goldwater, the ostensible father of the modern “Conservative Movement,” meant it, I think there’s an equally good case to be made that we’re seeing modern conservatism’s logical end result. Why? Because campaigns became centered around candidates convincing you that they hate government more than their opponent does. If that actually starts winning offices, which it did, sincerely believing in public service becomes a liability for a candidate.
So what happens if that model wins—if government ends up being controlled by people who really do, in fact, hate government? According to them, and I think the vast majority of those who say this do sincerely believe it, you get a small-government, low-tax, free-market paradise.
Well, the model did win. The Republicans have been campaigning on that model for three decades and it brought them to complete power. What did we get from this? Let’s quickly review:
- The average Iraqi citizen is at measurably more risk and suffering measurably greater poverty than he was before American intervention; Iraq is far more open to terrorists, not less;
- We have declared war (albeit not in the Constitutional sense) not on a state nor even a stateless entity but a tactic, ensuring there is no clear victory condition;
- We have used that state of war to justify a marked shift of power to the executive branch and infringements on civil rights whose precedents—Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus, Japanese internment camps, COINTELPRO—have, with no exception, been judged by history as illegal, shameful or both;
- Our relationship with long-standing allies is fragile (to put it mildly);
- In the Federal government’s response to Katrina, we have seen incompetence on a scale one has to go back quite some distance in history to equal.2
And I think that last one is the clearest illustration of my point. It’s easy to write it off as an example of why government can’t help people, but it’s not. It’s an example of why a government committed to an ideology that says government can’t help people can’t help people. Even the incredible corruption we see in the Abramoff scandal is in part a byproduct of this. If you sincerely believe that (a) big government is actively evil and (b) the major opposition party wants to expand government, it is absolutely necessary that you keep that opposition party out of power, and that means creating a de facto one-party state.3
The problem is that once you’re in power, you learn that government does have a role that its citizens expect of it, even all those citizens who think that government sucks and that it needs to be drowned in the tub and so on and so forth. And you can’t do it. You just can’t. Your ideology is really stirring rhetoric, but it doesn’t actually work in practice.
Radical leftists still wistfully insist that the divergence between the reality of the Soviet Union and Marx’s worker paradise was due to the Soviets just not getting communism right, but I suspect the USSR was, like it or not, what communism collapses into in practice. As I watch conservatives break rank with the Bush team and contend that the divergence between what we have now and what Goldwater preached is due to the Republicans in power just not getting it right, I can’t help but have rather similar suspicions. The problem isn’t that Bush and his team didn’t hold fast to anti-government principles; it’s that you can’t govern with anti-government principles.
I don’t harbor any illusions that a government completely run by Democrats would be its own kind of paradise, and—while in this current election I do think it’s important that the Democrats retake one or both houses in Congress—I tend to vote for candidates rather than parties anyway. I suspect that splitting the executive and legislative branches between parties makes for the best government, simply because one side will tend to dig in their heels at the excesses of the other and what does get passed will follow the principle of the Mutually Unacceptable Compromise. But here’s what I do think, and I guess it really is radical, because it’s so far away from what’s become the common wisdom of today:
Let’s start electing politicians to political office again.
By “politicians,” I mean people who actually like politics. People who want to be in public service. They’re still out there, you know—every race has at least one (usually not the incumbent, sadly). They might be Green or Libertarian; they might well be Republican or Democrat. They can write their own speeches. Most of all, they understand what the office they’re running for actually means. They want to do that job. They want to do it better than the guy they’re running against and better than the last guy in the office. Maybe better than anyone else who’s ever done it.
But they don’t want to tell us how much that job just doesn’t matter, because hey, it’s only government. They don’t want to dismantle their office for the benefit of the company or organization that they came to office from and plan to go back to after their term expires.
They may believe government should be a lot smaller, that a lot of regulation should be repealed, that taxes are too high. But ultimately they believe government is necessary, and not just a necessary evil—a necessary good.
That kind of ideology, I’d like to see.
1. I should note that I’m hardly an unreconstructed Bill Clinton fan, although most of my criticisms of him comes from the left flank: he’s the president of the Defense of Marriage Act, the Telecom Deregulation Act, and NAFTA, for a start. I’ve always found the extreme vitriol some of the right directs toward him puzzling, given that not only were all of those Republican issues, many of Clinton’s other successes were more in line with stereotypically conservative goals than stereotypically liberal ones.
2. I’m thinking “Battle of Waterloo,” but you’re free to name your own example.
3. The Green and Libertarian “both parties are essentially the same” argument has truth to it; both parties are far too beholden to special interest groups (often the same special interest groups), both parties produce a lot of pork, on and on. But the strongest rebuttal to that is simply Republican behavior over the last six years: they’ve been trying, at all costs, to push the Democrats out of power permanently. This is not a strategy of pragmatism, which is what one would expect if the all-the-same scenario were strictly true—it’s one of fiercely-held ideology.