Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Reacting to Political Rhetoric, Part 1

All right, I've heard enough. I've been trying not to, but I've heard again and again certain catch phrases from politicians that I just have to challenge.

The first one is that oft-quoted sentence, "Government isn't the solution; government is the problem." It is the favorite image of small-government conservatives, especially of a libertarian bent.

I have two problems with this, and the first one is really fundamental. I don't like being told that I'm the problem, that we're the problem.

"Oh, but you're not the problem. It's government." But, you see, that’s really the meaning of the statement. The Preamble to the Constitution begins, “We the People.” President Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address enjoined “that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” (Don’t we all remember studying this in our high school History and/or Civics classes?) If we take seriously that this government of the people and for the people is also government by the people, to say that “Government is the problem” is to say to us, “You are the problem.”

Now, in a sense perhaps we are the problem. After all, we have an opportunity every two years to significantly change the government (that’s how often all members of the House of Representatives are up for reelection), and over a maximum of six years to turn it over completely (four years for the President and six years to completely turn over the Senate). If we’re really committed to throwing the rascals out, we have regular and relatively frequent opportunities. For good or ill (for good and ill) we don’t take the opportunity. Those who don’t vote have discarded the opportunity. Those of us who do vote frequently enough decline the opportunity. Has it never seemed odd to anyone else that, election after election, polls show people saying both “I don’t think that Congress is doing a good job” and also “My Representative/Senator is doing a good job.” Surely somebody’s Representative or Senator isn’t doing a good job for people to have the impression that most (“but not mine”) need to be thrown out.

And has money taken government away from us? I’d be more persuaded if votes, like bull rider rankings, were counted by money earned. In fact, it’s the votes that get counted, and corporate citizens don’t get to vote. Recent elections have shown, too, that it’s quite possible to raise lots of campaign money by accepting small donations from many donors. Moreover, there was some truth about that wonderful climax of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Send a politician enough letters, and the politician will pay attention, no matter who’s contributed campaign money. Several real lobbyists of my acquaintance have affirmed that. And these days, between local phone numbers to local political offices and web and email access, it’s a lot easier to get those letters in various forms to the politicians who serve us.

But it remains the case that we chose ‘em, whether by voting for them or abdicating the responsibility to vote against them. We are the government of this republic. So, to say, “Government is the problem” is to lay the blame on us, whether we realize it or not.

Which leads me to my second concern. If “Government is the problem,” who would want to be part of it? How often have we heard that old saw, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem?” Who, then, would choose to be part of the problem instead of part of the solution? And yet the people who want to tell us most loudly that “Government is the problem” want us to vote to make them part of it. Why, then, would we trust them to lead us as part of “the problem?” Isn’t there something remarkably disingenuous, if not downright duplicitous, about that?

So, that’s my problem with the sentiment, “Government isn’t part of the solution, it’s the problem.” Those who use it are trying to convince us to put them in charge of something they believe doesn’t work, and to blame us for the failure - and if they’re incumbents, for their failure! Do you see good reasons to have such persons lead us? Because I don’t.

1 comment:

bls said...

"Isn’t there something remarkably disingenuous, if not downright duplicitous, about that?"

Absolutely, yes.