Your Captain says: Put your head in your hands.

20 01 2010

There are days—many days, actually—when it sucks to be a student of politics.

This is one of them.

Not because Martha Coakley lost in Massachusetts to a nice head of hair (although that’s not really helping my mood), but because the crappiness of political analysis in this country has gone critical.

That’s called  a shitstorm, my friends, and we’ve been livin’ in it for too many years.

Given the constant effluvia, you’d think I’d be used to it by now, hunkered down in a cave of indifference and/or utterly uncaring of the stench of politics.

But no, if you care about politics, ain’t no way to plug oneself up against the raining—or shall I say reigning?—of nonsense.

Please note that this is not strictly or even mainly about partisan politics. I’m a pinko, so I know I’m always going to lose. Sometimes I get to vote for people who are within shouting (really loud!) distance of my agenda, and that’s nice, but, really, socialists don’t have much goin’ on in this country.

Nor is this (directly) about nasty language, gossip, hypocrisy, and the hypercompetitiveness of candidates.

Nooo, this is more about the structure of politics in the US, how we—left, right, and otherwise—do politics.

First: the nastiness. Well, duh. I may hold and Arendtian/Aristotelian understanding of politics as the sphere of the good life, but neither of them had much of a theory of actual governance. And actual governance is hard, performed by people with strong and conflicting opinions, people who had to scratch and spit and shed blood to get into the position to govern.

I don’t know that this is in every way the best way to find politicians, but if you want responsive government, then there’s election by lot, election through competition, and . . . what else?

Thus, given that competition is built into our system, you’d think that journalists and pundits and the politicians themselves would not be surprised when candidates compete! And that they would be similarly phlegmatic when those in the throes of competition get angry, trash talk, and otherwise behave as if they want and expect to win.

No. Instead of sobriety or stoicism, we get titillation, as seen most recently in Game Change, by the alleged journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. Oo! Hillary said a bad word! Or famously temperamental Senator McCain yelled bad words at his wife! Or the other candidates really didn’t like Mitt Romney!

Over three hundred interviews with over two hundred witnesses/participants/soreheads on ‘deep background’ and we get Gossip Pols?

But the omnipresent irritation of the presence of pundits is not, however, the main target of this rant.

Nope, I’m just going to go ahead and smack all of us as lousy citizens.

Not because each of us individually is a lousy citizen, but because we have created a system in which it is very difficult to be a good citizen.

Politicians who know better say we can cut the deficit without raising taxes or reducing or eliminating popular programs or entitlements.

Pundits who know better ponder the re-election chances of a president three years ahead of the election.

Citizens who know better say we want lower taxes and less government and clean streets and good schools and safe cities.

We want one-hundred-percent protection against terrorism and cheap flights with easy check-in procedures.

We want excellent teachers and low property taxes.

We want cheap water and few regulations.

You see how this could continue; you could probably add your own 2 or 3 or twenty.

It’s not that Americans are more stupid than anyone else, or even more covetous. It’s that we’ve gotten so used to thinking of our wants as rights that we’ve neglected to do the hard work of accounting for our wants; instead, we demand, and castigate any negotiations over those demands.

(Oh, and when there’s any kind of inequality, we err in the other direction by confusing want and need, and punish those who are attempt to translate those needs into rights.)

Politicians respond to this, we respond to the politicians, and the pundits keep smug score.

The problem is systemic. Individual citizens may understand that if you wanna get, you gotta give, and adjust their expectations accordingly. I don’t like taxes, but am willing to pay them in order to create a more generous social-welfare net; libertarians might like some government services, but are willing to forgo them in order to lower their tax burden; social conservatives might be willing to trade liberty for authority. At that individual or local level, some of us, perhaps many or most of us, get it.

But since we are treated as a mass or series of masses by politicians and pundits, and are sometimes too eager to associate ourselves with some mass or another, we get a politics based on the ebbs and flows of the mass, and the reaction cycle between mass, politician, and pundit.

And that’s exactly what our system has become: reactionary. No thinking, no leading, no acting—only re-acting to the latest outrage du jour.

Irresponsibility, all around.

What does this mean? Not much, really. We can probably chug along in our politically-irresponsibly ways for years, if not decades, which means that it’s possible that something could happen in the meantime to break us out of this cycle.

But even a slo-mo degradation is still degradation.

Which helps to explain the occasional rants by those of us who do care about our politics.


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2 responses

21 01 2010
Christine

How much worse does it have to get before something changes?

What will it take? Is it a personality we need, to galvanize everyone? Where do we find one that’s better than Obama or Dean? How about an emergency? But Katrina didn’t do it.

How bad will it have to get? That question terrifies me a little. And makes me want to go and learn how to make fire without matches.

22 01 2010
geekhiker

Thing is, it’s nothing new. It’s part of human nature, even animal nature, to gain the most with the least amount of effort. I mean, heck, if a monkey finds a plate of food set out for him every day, rather than having to forage, you’re gonna get a fat, lazy monkey.

As for things like safety, that has a long history as well. A thousand years ago, you stuck with and supported the king that would keep you safe from the invaders, even if he made your daily life hell or you had to give up some freedoms for it. Are there more advanced choices? Sure, just look at the countries in Europe that pay incredibly high taxes but have very high expectations to balance that. Whether or not America can approach that is an open question.

Though, with today’s Supreme Court decision, I have my doubts…

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