Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Low Expectations

Peggy Noonan makes this astute comment about what we expect of our federal legislators:
“They hired a man to represent them in Washington. They give him a big office, a huge staff and the power to tell people what to do. They give him a car and a driver, sometimes a security detail, and a special pin showing he’s a congressman. And all they ask in return is that he see to their interests and not terrify them too much. Really, that’s all people ask. Expectations are very low.”
I think Noonan gets this about right. We really do have low expectations of our politicians. Sure, we’d all like to live in a utopia where politicians are actually great and altruistic people. We even sometimes allow ourselves to be beguiled (especially during campaign season) into thinking that this or that person might actually fill such a bill. But we don’t really expect it.

In fact, when a politician uncharacteristically behaves in a manner that seems truly unselfish and benevolent, our first impulse is not to think, “What a wonderful gesture.” Rather, we think that something fishy is going on. We do so because our experience tells us that politicians almost always act in their own self interest in a system where the everyday way of doing business would be considered morally abhorrent to most of us.

When George Washington resigned his military commission following the American Revolution and opted to return to private life, people all over the U.S. and Europe were stunned. He could literally have become king of the United States. Many people thought that Washington had ulterior power based motives. But they were dumbfounded when he really did retire from public life and return to running his Mount Vernon estate.

Years later, it was only at great importuning by James Madison and others that Washington agreed to attend the Philadelphia constitutional convention, a path that ultimately led to Washington becoming the first President of the United States. Many historians believe that the convention would not have succeeded without Washington’s personal influence and stature. But this is only true because of the tremendous trust both politicians and regular citizens could place in him, due to his extraordinary demonstration of his willingness to eschew power.

We may revere such rare examples, but we do not expect them to be repeated in our day. We fully expect politicians to live down to their reputations. In this we are rarely disappointed.

A few years ago I heard a politician express his frustration with the public’s view of him and his colleagues. He wondered how it was that so many people could be so enthused about his candidacy, only to view him as the enemy almost immediately upon taking office. He opined that he and his colleagues were still the same people with the same concerns that they had during the campaign.

Among the reasons for this phenomenon are:
  • Upon taking office, you do in fact be come one of THEM. While people have difficulty voicing it, many seem to innately understand that your incentives change substantially upon taking political office. You may think you are the same, but you’re not. Even erstwhile supporters will turn against you the moment they sense that you are doing something that could impinge on their personal interests.
  • During the campaign, you necessarily surround yourself with supporters. Once the campaign is over, most of these people go back to living their regular lives. The ones that are still hanging around generally want something from you.
  • What you said you’d do on the campaign trail was pie in the sky, and everyone knows it. But once you take office you have the ability to make actual impact on people’s lives. Those that sense no harm in your actions are like satisfied customers. Few of them make any noise about it unless you deliberately seek them out. Those that sense potential harm, however, will constantly be breathing down your neck. So it can seem that your supporters have become your enemies, when this is not necessarily the case. (Although, it could be the case if you ruffle too many feathers.)
Beyond this, I think that there is another interesting bit of wisdom in the Noonan quote above. Politicians can dupe the public into just about anything as long as they move cautiously and don’t “terrify them too much.”

The incremental and back door approaches often accomplish far more of a political agenda in a longer lasting manner than the front door approach. This is why we must always be vigilant in watching for such insidious advances. (Such as the Ginnie MaeFHA partnership that is rapidly becoming a clone of the Fannie MaeFreddie Mac debacle, as explained here.)

But sometimes the political class simply won’t be satisfied with the incremental approach. It seems that our two-party political system often creates the appearance of a mandate for a party to implement much of its ideological agenda, when the electorate is just sending the message that the other party is out of favor. This occurred during the G.W. Bush administration. It’s happening now.

The politicos felt that last year’s election was a mandate for massive change. But as Noonan notes, not only have the changes naturally brought on by the recession produced a significant aversion to change since last autumn, the pace of change since then is terrifying the nation. (See here for an interesting view on the increasing pace of change in our lives.) The current tack of the politicos is to in effect say, “Don’t worry. You can trust us. This will all be for your good.”

The people aren’t buying it. They’ve had enough change for now. They want normalcy and the political class is working in direct opposition to that desire. The politicians can try to ram their ideology based change down the throats of a less-than-willing public, but there will be stark consequences to pay for such forceful arrogance.

Interestingly, I doubt that there is anything to be done about it now. There might have been a point where sensibility could have been restored a few weeks ago, but that did not happen. The forces that have been set in action are now beyond the ability of anyone to control. All we can do now is to watch it the way we’d watch a violent summer storm. Once the storm is over we’ll have to go out and see what kind of damage has been done.

Perhaps the agents of change will achieve some kind of Pyrrhic victory, but my guess is that their cause will suffer many self inflicted wounds from which recovery will prove difficult.

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