We Have Met The Enemy and He Is US (1)

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Politicians Behaving Badly and Voters Who Love Them


Perhaps it’s just an increasingly jaded view that accompanies advancing age.  Maybe it’s wisdom and maturity.

In either event, with the conventions over, and a long campaign season to reflect upon, I find myself annoyed and intellectually offended by the torrent of fabulist promises from the Presidential candidates.“Change,” they promise.  Ah, yes, glorious change.

But have you heard any candidate offer something that sounds like real change, something really different, especially when it comes to the “big issue,” the economy?  I haven’t.  Back during the primaries I watched with amusement a debate between Senators Clinton and Obama as each shamelessly attempted to trump the other with increasingly implausible promises of government largesse:  “Oh, yeah!?  I’ll see your promise of a giant chocolate bar, and raise you two toffee bars and a cup of tapioca pudding.  Take that!!”

It made you want to avert your eyes.  Campaigning in Pennsylvania, Senator Clinton promised to “get America back to work.”  Not to be outdone, Barack Obama routinely denounced the “middle class squeeze” and promised “change” from the “failed Bush policies.”

Today?  They will all “fix” Wall Street.  If only you will vote for me, they say, a shining and wonderful future will surely follow.  Sigh.

If distilled to its essence, the central message of almost all the candidates in debates, speeches and campaign website policy manifestos comes down to: “you poor, grievously wronged little dears, times are tough, and if only you will vote for me I will create a government program or payout scheme to fix each and every one of your ills and concerns.  And be assured, if I have to, I’ll fleece that no good rich neighbor of yours to do it.”

This is tired, old standard issue populism.  We’ve heard it all before, yet actually fulfilling those promises seems to have eluded all the politicians who made them in the past.  Sen. Obama has at times attempted to finesse this crass “vote your own interest” appeal by wrapping his message in the positive veneer of “hope.”  But I see no reason or evidence that standard issue Robin Hood politics cloaked as “hope” have any better prospect of working now than they ever have.

It occurs to me, however, that the focus of my annoyance is misplaced.  After all, a politician’s endless promises to hand out goodies in exchange for votes is nothing more than the employment of proven and focus group tested campaigning techniques for the purpose of achieving the politician’s explicitly stated goal – winning an election.  The politicians haven’t really done anything wrong.  Mind you, they have shown no propensity to lead rather than simply pander.  But they have done nothing wrong.  Let’s be honest.  Politicians don’t control the voters’ minds or pull the voting lever.  Voters do.  And wouldn’t political science professionals tell us that this class warfare, populist approach has a rich heritage that dates back to at least Williams Jennings Brian?

So the real question is to understand what voters are thinking, and why a significant, and perhaps increasing, portion of the electorate is susceptible to this populist message election after election?  Are a large number of American voters in an almost perpetual state of anxiety, anger, self pity or simple sense of entitlement, and in search of a politician to be the “savior” to deliver them the goodies they believe they deserve?  As you might surmise, implicit in this question is the observation that the track record on politician’s promises of government based solutions is (shall we be charitable) at best “mixed.”  In the next installment we will take a brief look at the results of government’s handiwork, and compare it to private enterprise.

1 Comment so far

  1. theclassiclib on September 23rd, 2008

    Awesome! Looking forward to installment #2!