Some of us, I suspect, are on the verge of despair about our politics; perhaps an invigorating dose of cynicism is in order. David Bentley Hart wrote this back in 2010:
Our system obliges us to elevate to office precisely those persons who have the ego-besotted effrontery to ask us to do so; it is rather like being compelled to cede the steering wheel to the drunkard in the back seat loudly proclaiming that he knows how to get us there in half the time. More to the point, since our perpetual electoral cycle is now largely a matter of product recognition, advertising, and marketing strategies, we must be content often to vote for persons willing to lie to us with some regularity or, if not that, at least to speak to us evasively and insincerely. In a better, purer world—the world that cannot be—ambition would be an absolute disqualification for public office.1
Fair enough; and yet, before we become too soured and too cynical about politics, we ought to keep in mind that the same political system which produced president-elect donald trump2 also produced President Barack Obama. This system isn’t perfect, or even close: but it’s all we have to regulate our collective life as citizens of this nation.
Nor should we think our system is any more imperfect than anyone else’s. Laura Tingle has written a lengthy essay (“Great Expectations”) about political anger and frustration in Australia; it turns out very much to resemble political anger and frustration in America. According to Ms. Tingle, the public mood in her nation is one of disappointment and distrust:
Someone, it seems, is always in the process of letting us down or telling us a lie. No one in politics is allowed to change their mind, or even adapt to new circumstances, anymore. In the day-to-day political discourse, this is put down purely to bad politics, badly conducted. But are we also getting angrier as a society?
Apparently we (and the Australians) are, and Ms. Tingle thinks she knows why:
[It’s] because [people] have expectations that have not been met and a belief in entitlements they are due. The more I thought on it, the more it seemed that so much of our culture, so many of our public discussions, contain some suspicion or assertion that we might be being ripped off, that someone else might be getting preferment. The belief that we are entitled to a lifestyle that we think everyone else may be enjoying seems to simmer not far beneath the surface.
This belief matches precisely the findings of Arlie Russell Hochschild (STRANGER IN THEIR OWN LAND) who found that Tea Party members in Louisiana were convinced nameless “others” were “cutting in line” and stealing what the Tea Partiers had worked hard to deserve. “Entitlements” in the larger sense are not only the much maligned government benefit programs (aka the “safety net” or, quoting Paul Ryan, the “comfortable hammock”) for the poor; they also include the fabled “American dream” that so many middle-class citizens feel has been taken from them by pushy minorities and their elitist liberal enablers.
The charge amounts to this: middle-class families stuck at about $50,000 per year don’t blame the wealthiest one percent for that plight; they blame the government for using tax money to provide an economic floor for the poorest and most vulnerable among us. Benefits to the undeserving prevent the middle-class strivers from moving on up—that’s the story, which is widely persuasive even though it’s not remotely true.
So even for those who claim they don’t want or expect much from government, government officials and politicians become the scapegoat because of their wicked redistribution schemes. As Ms. Tingle notes: “In the political realm, we are underwhelmed by our politicians, by our institutions and by the quality of services that government provides.” But she goes on to say:
At the heart of anger is disappointment or frustration. It is a disappointment at something expected, or hoped for, that has not been received. It is a frustration that things should be different. But what is it that we expect of government…and how have these expectations been formed?
I make the argument that as a nation, a polity, we have not sat down and worked out what exactly we expect “the government” – by which I mean its administrative side, as well as the politicians of the day – to be and to do. We haven’t settled the idea of what we think we are “entitled” to get from government. The only things we seem to have been sure about over the years are that government has not met our great expectations that it will look after us, and that we are nonetheless entitled to be looked after.
Politicians may be the conduits who try to persuade us from time to time that they can make government work better. We talk endlessly of how they let us down, of how hopeless they are. I think this is only partly born of the fact that they may actually be hopeless. It is also – and this is much less discussed – born of the fact that we don’t really know what we expect of them, or of government, in the first place.
If you were to ask…“not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” most would respond with a blank look. We might believe that our country – our government – can do something for us, but, beyond military service, there is no deeply entrenched value ascribed to doing something for our country, or government. Public servants (who do generally have a commitment to the national good) are more often than not held in contempt, as are politicians.
Ms. Tingle charmingly suggests that Americans maintain a more positive view of government and civic service than do her fellow Australians; perhaps she is under the illusion that John F. Kennedy still resides in the White House, and perhaps she’s never heard of Ronald Reagan. In any case, it doesn’t help that some elements of the polity habitually denigrate government as a force for good:
Government is rarely portrayed in any of our conversations as a force for good. More often it is seen as amorphous, badly run and ill-defined, the plaything of politicians that is separate from most of us. Similarly, [we] are dismissive and cynical about why people enter politics. We rarely discuss decisions in terms that recognise the compromises that government, and democracy, inevitably entails.
Even as we bash government, we make demands upon it:
Our expectations of what government will do have seemed to grow over the years. Of course it will be there to assist us after [fire] or flood, not just with our immediate emergency needs but also by helping with rebuilding and providing income support. When we travel to war-torn and unstable countries, we expect government to rescue us from trouble, and, sometimes, to get us home.
We expect government to provide easily accessible hospital services, and good schools and childcare and roads and public transport. We expect it to protect little children when their families won’t. We expect to be protected from violence and crime...Yet, at the same time, we see public anger that we have become a “nanny state.”
“Nannying,” of course, applies only to government efforts to help other people; what help we get is help to which we, as hard-working taxpayers, are entitled. As Ms. Tingle observes:
This lies at the nub of the problem: our expectations and our sense of entitlement are confused and this makes us angry. Politicians [extol] the virtues of small government, yet propose vastly expensive schemes without explaining how they will be funded. Politicians talk about fixing a problem like climate change, then opt for a policy that does little to address it. Politicians tell us we should be pleased we have escaped the global financial crisis, yet we complain that escaping it hasn’t made it any easier to pay the mortgage or the electricity bill…
Politicians set expectations. They are also the conduit through which people’s expectations about the state flow. But expectations also build up insidiously over time. We may not know why the givens of any particular policy debate are given. They seep in quietly over the years until someone comes along to challenge the entire edifice that has built up without our realising it.
A person’s sense of entitlement in life – what they expect their life to look like – is all-pervading. A person may have a small sense of entitlement, or a large one. It will shape their sense of how capable they are of changing their life – should they wish to change it – or of creating the life they desire.
So all we need to do is figure out (a) what sort of life we think desirable, (b) what we can rightly and reasonably expect from our government, and (c) how to persuade and convince our fellow citizens; and we have to somehow manage to do "(c)" even though "(a)" and "(b)" are by their nature controversial and perhaps even impossible of consensus. If that sounds like a tall order, well, that’s politics, and no one said it would be easy: despair, however, is not an option. Those of us who care about civic life and the political order, and who believe in the liberal idea of an activist government, must redouble our efforts to argue our case cogently, patiently, and without insulting or condescending to those with whom we disagree.
1 https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2010/11/anarcho-monarchism I think too little attention is paid to the problematic nature of “ambition,” a quality which (like “self-interest”) underwent reevaluation and rehabilitation in the modern era: what was once vice is now virtue, and ambition has plenty of defenders, but I for one think we ought to be more suspicious of it than we are.
2 I am hereby signing on to the “lower-case trump” movement begun (I believe) by an unhappy voter in Billings, Montana; if we can’t keep him out of the White House, let us at least not dignify “trump” with capital letters anymore. In fact, I’m going to refer to him from now on as “president trumpy” (with a nod to Mystery Science Theater 3000).