“Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.” – Benjamin Franklin
“Every nation has the government it deserves.” – Joseph de Maistre
Over the last week, a firestorm erupted over comments made by Republican Senate nominee Todd Akin, who suggested that in cases of “legitimate rape,” a woman is unlikely to get pregnant and therefore legal abortion for rape victims is unnecessary. Akin has been excoriated by all sides of the political spectrum, so my intention is not to issue yet another self-congratulating rebuke of an extremely unpopular, fringe position. Rather, I would like to address a more fundamental question about a political culture that seems to give us entirely too many Todd Akins and Charlie Rangels and far too few Roosevelts, Churchills, or Jeffersons.
Much wailing and gnashing of teeth has occurred in recent years over the unbearable “polarization” of the American political spectrum. Charts tell us that our legislative bodies are more divided now than at any point in the previous 30 years, and each side blames the other for the resulting deadlock. Spend 20 minutes on any major news site, and you are likely to find a liberal opinion piece about how the Tea Party, Rush Limbaugh, and other right wing baddies are fanning the flames of the next Civil War by shifting the center irrevocably to the right. Similarly, on the right, Republican obstructionism is justified as a last defense of capitalism against the creeping Stalinism of Obama’s far-left agenda. Everyone seems to agree that the system is broken.
The hair pulling over polarization is exaggerated. Although more fractured now than in the broad consensus years of the post-Soviet world, today’s partisan spats are drops in a bucket compared to the violent social upheavals of the late 1960s. If a 2nd rate demagogue calling a law student a “slut” is evidence of the collapse of our political discourse, one cannot help but wonder what would happen if anything similar to the Kennedy assassinations were to happen today. However, whatever the degree of its severity, polarization is something of a red herring. It is an answer to the question: “Why can’t America govern itself?” Perhaps we should instead pose the question: “Should America govern itself?”
The late George Carlin had a famous bit explaining why he didn’t vote: “Everybody complains about politicians… but where do people think these politicians come from? …they come from American homes, American schools, American churches, American businesses, and they’re elected by American voters. This is the best we can do, folks. It’s what our system produces: Garbage in, garbage out.” Surveying the current political and cultural landscape, it is tempting to agree.
Popular culture, while never exemplary, has descended into a cesspool of stupidity, fear, sex, and greed. Reality television makes celebrities of the worst our society has to offer – only to have them ripped to shreds in the tabloids like Christians in the Colosseum. Crime shows remind us that around every corner lurks a potential murderous pervert, waiting to kill us and our children, while so-called foreign policy experts ensure us that, despite being the most overwhelmingly powerful empire in the history of the world, we are in constant mortal danger from swarthy foreigners who hate our freedom. Cable news outlets, left and right, find it a better business model to confirm and reinforce our prejudices than to challenge them – all the while assuring us without irony that we are still the Greatest Country in the World. Our concept of Liberty has been debased to mean little more than the right to be left alone and to not pay taxes. Is it any wonder that our politics is so dysfunctional?
Ignorance abounds. Although by now it has become an oft-repeated stereotype, many Americans never read, can’t write, and struggle to answer even the most basic questions about American history. As anyone who has sat through a particularly painful class discussion can attest, basic critical-thinking skills are sorely lacking even among college students. Universities themselves, for all the fear mongering about liberal professors indoctrinating students, have turned into little more than job training centers. A student can quite easily graduate from the University of Georgia having been assigned more works by Malcolm Gladwell than by John Locke, Aristotle, William Shakespeare and Karl Marx combined. This is fine for those whose only ambition to make money. Literature, art, philosophy, history – none of these none of these will earn anyone a job at Goldman Sachs. But an informed, critical-minded public is crucial the functioning of a democracy, and the lack of one may go a long way in explaining the pitiful current state of our government.
We criticize our leaders for their greed, their ignorance, and their duplicity. From Halliburton to Solyndra to every real and imagined scandal in between, outrage abounds – how could they stoop this low? Again? Answers abound, from institutional failure to anonymous money to the ubiquitous “polarization.” Their behavior, however, is entirely consistent with what our society values; what we buy, what we watch, and what we listen to. Our heroes, or at least our celebrities, lie, cheat, and steal to get what they want, and we love them for it. Why should we expect our elected officials to behave any differently?
Is democracy still desirable? Winston Churchill once said “democracy is the worst form of government, except for those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” In absence of a compelling alternative, the answer likely remains yes. However, we should not be so naïve as to think that political moderation, or the victory of our favorite party, will cure our democracy. Representative government puts a great deal of responsibility on the people to decide their own fate. However desirable this may be in the abstract, there is little preventing us from marching ourselves over the edge of a cliff, fiscal or otherwise.