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Obama and the Public

Long live political cynicism!

Barack Obama, the current White House occupant, says that the people have a growing sense that “something is broken” in Washington. He attributes this to hyper-partisanship and a consequent lack of civility. As he put it Wednesday, “Those of us in Washington are not serving the people as well as we should. At times, it seems like we’re unable to listen to one another; to have at once a serious and civil debate.”

He thinks this growing sense can be arrested through better manners, bipartisanship, compromise, and cooperation.  But to what end? Greater government management of, among other things, medical care, finance, and energy. In a skillful act of question-begging, he identifies this with “serving the people.”

Let’s overlook that Obama and his allies in Congress and the media have consistently impugned their opponents — all of them, inside Congress and out — as corporate knaves, fanatical ideologues, or drooling flat-earthers; that is, they could learn something about civil debate themselves, but we’ll leave that for another day. There’s a deeper issue here.

To tell if something is broken, you need to know how it’s supposed to look or work when it’s intact. If you don’t know that, you also won’t know what “fixing” it means.

Some people who think government is broken mean that it’s not doing nearly enough. Others mean that it’s doing far too much already. Those two sides won’t agree on what a “fix” would consist of.

But Obama has a third notion of “broken.” He takes it as given that government should do more. In his view, what’s broken is the mechanism that produces authorizations for government to grow. If he can’t get the votes to do what he wants, then the system is malfunctioning.  It never occurs to him that by some standards, successfully thwarting the growth of government shows that in at least that narrow respect the system has worked. Broken is in the eye of the beholder. (Some might think that the system really isn’t broken at all because exploiting the productive for the benefit of the privileged is what it was set up to do!)

For those in power today (and their patrons and clients), compromise is the great good. Unsurprisingly it seems to run in only one direction. In the case of medical care, for example, it requires people who want less or even no government interference to accept more. The compromise lies in the fact that it won’t (initially) be all the intervention that the staunchest interventionists want. Compromise never consists in the interventionists’ moving in a noninterventionist direction. That can’t be an accident.

Obama & Co. does not acknowledge that there can be real and sincere differences about what government should do, so he speaks as though the lack of the spirit of compromise is driven purely by partisan politics, satisfaction with a profitable and corrupt status quo, or both. That may be true for some, but surely not all, of his critics. One can — indeed, should — oppose Obamacare and the status quo. This is easier  when one realizes that Obamacare would be merely an extension of the status quo. (See the cooperating pharmaceutical and insurance companies for proof.)

Superficial Opposition

What makes all this so hard to see for the casual observer is that the official opposition party is not really an opposition at all at the level of basic premises. It’s the party that delivered a huge, open-ended expansion of an already-broke Medicare, Wall Street bailouts, outrageous spending increases, and frighteningly large budget deficits when it was in charge. It, like the current majority party, is cozy with Big Pharma, Big Insurance, and Big Finance, all of whom are what they are today because of years of political privilege. So when the opposition suddenly objects to “socialized medicine” or fiscal irresponsibility, or when it cries that the “free market” is being violated, it has so little credibility that its intransigence is easily portrayed as petty partisanship. Who can truly say it isn’t? Politicians live to win elections.

This is sad because the rest of us get caught in the crossfire.

But let’s have no sympathy for the good-government types who bemoan public cynicism. It is they who created unfulfillable expectations by touting the blessings of the omnipotent State. They have only themselves to blame. Yet they seem to have learned nothing. They rather plunge ahead, bringing to mind Bertolt Brecht’s line:

The people have lost the confidence of the government; the government has decided to dissolve the people, and to appoint another one.

Broken or not, government at the moment is not inspiring confidence in the majority of people. That’s good news for those who look to government for neither inspiration nor solutions (to problems it itself has created). There’s no more urgent task that to fan the flames of political cynicism, emphasizing that what’s wrong with health care, finance, and energy won’t be fixed by electing the “right” person or party next time around but rather by removing the obstacles to bottom-up, decentralized solutions.


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