Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Politicians R Us?!

Newsweek's Evan Thomas has an interesting take on the selfishness of the American public and how it impacts our politics. Personally, I find it pretty hard to disagree with his analysis...

"It is hard to know exactly how or when we got this self-indulgent. The '60s are partly to blame. The triumph of individual and civil rights, a wondrous fulfillment of the true meaning of the Constitution, was too often perverted into an "I got my rights" sense of victimhood. The noble push of the New Deal and the Great Society to fight poverty and illness, particularly among the very old and very young, hardened into the nonsensical defiance some tea partiers show when they shout, "Keep your government hands off my Medicare!" The casting off of conformity and explosion of free expression contributed to the sour and selfish "Me Decade" of the 1970s. The spurt of economic activity in the 1980s and '90s spawned a generation of Gordon Gekkos on Wall Street and profligate spenders in the shopping malls of America (financed and enabled in part by more frugal Chinese buying American debt)."

"Politicians have never been very good at asking for sacrifice from their constituents. (And the ones who have tried have generally lost reelection.) Outside of wartime, there was never any golden age when political leaders successfully called on their people to give up what they perceived as their economic entitlements for the greater good. The last presidential candidate to call for tax increases on the middle class was Walter Mondale of Minnesota, in 1984, and he was defeated in every state but his own and the District of Columbia."

But lately, politicians seem to have lost the most essential element of the art of governing—meaningful compromise. In its pure form, compromise means mutual sacrifice. On Capitol Hill, there is only getting: politicians will vote for a bill if they get something, like a tax cut for an interest group or a pork-barrel project for their district. But they are not willing to give up anything. This is especially true where the other party is concerned. Partisanship has never been worse. It was not always this way. Read Robert Caro's Master of the Senate, about the way Lyndon Johnson, Senate majority leader in the late 1950s, bullied and horse-traded to craft majorities for civil rights out of both parties and all sections of the country.

He then gives an example of how Obama could model the pure political compromise that has characterized politics and governance at its best.

"If Obama were to come out squarely for medical-malpractice reform—in a real way—he would be making an important political statement: that as president he is willing to risk the political fortunes of his own party for the greater good. It would give him the moral standing, and the leverage, to call on the Republicans to match him by sacrificing their own political interests—by, for instance, supporting tax increases to help pay down the debt."

Thomas' point is that politics is reflecting a societal mood so insistent upon its own way, that it leaves no room for the compromise that makes it necessary to live together in a civil society that agrees upon a common good.
With rare exceptions, politicians, all leaders, for that matter, will never be much better than the people from whom they emerge...

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