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The Public’s Complicity in its Own Outrage

National Journal’s Ron Brownstein has written that independent voters are “expressing astronomical levels of discontent with President Obama, Congress and the Washington system itself.” He goes on to say “this towering wave of alienation” presages more volatility for our political system. Each party is experiencing a hemorrhaging of public support. What we are witnessing is “a simultaneous vote of no confidence from the public in both the American economy and its national government.”

Brownstein points out this is only the latest wave of alienation that has hit our shores. It’s actually been going on, to one degree or another, for several decades now. And while such antipathy might be justified in any particular moment in time, it’s also the case the current level of public discontent toward our governing class and its institutions carries some dangers. The framers of the American Constitution sought to confer legitimacy on the new government (which replaced the much weaker Articles of Confederation) in part because they understood such legitimacy was important to a free society.

I understand fierce criticism of our political class is sometimes in order. (I’ve even engaged in such criticism myself from time to time.) Often, and understandably, it’s driven by objective circumstances. And the American public is not inclined to deify its (living) politicians, which is a healthy thing.

But we need to recognize this as well: if the public’s animus for our system of government is unrelenting and unceasing, it eventually undermines self-government itself. A democracy relies on widespread respect for the authority of government and compliance with its laws, including (and even especially) from those who are on the losing end of elections. Beyond that, it’s difficult to maintain one’s love of country if one harbors, over a sustained period of time, utter disdain for its governing institutions, for its lawmakers and for its laws.

Then there is the matter of the public itself. America’s first President, in his Farewell Address, said, “This government, the offspring of our own choice uninfluenced and unawed,… has a just claim to your confidence and your support.”

Note well the words of Washington: He wanted government to have a “just claim to [our] confidence and [our] support.” He understood, of course,
that government needed to act in ways that warranted public support. But Washington also understood that government was then, as it is now, the “offspring of our own choice.” And that is something that too many of us ignore or deny.

For the sake of the argument, accept an assumption with which I disagree. Grant for the moment our political class is a miserable and inept lot. So who exactly created this political class? Who voted our lawmakers into office? Why haven’t we produced more “proper guardians of the public weal,” in the elegant words of Madison?

I can’t do full justice to this matter here. But this much is clear: The responsibility, at least in part, rests with the American people. What we are seeing play itself out in Washington year after year are politicians who represent the different interests, demands and appetites of the American polity (let’s call them factions). And so voters get angry at politicians who can’t produce a balanced budget even as they get angry at politicians who want to reform entitlement programs that are causing our fiscal crisis. One can make a serious argument, in fact, that one of the problems with the public is it expects its elected representatives to respond to the shifting winds of public opinion.

Irving Kristol, as usual, put it as well as anyone. “I do indeed have faith in the common people,” he said, “only I don’t have very much faith in them. Nor is there anything snobbish or, as we now say, ‘elitist’ about such a statement. I include myself among those common people and, knowing myself as I do, I would say that anyone who constructed a political system based on unlimited faith in my good character was someone with a fondness for high-risk enterprises.”

It’s a comforting game many of us like to play, to insist the American people are the font of all wisdom and our politicians are nothing but knaves and fools. Perhaps they are; but if they are, it’s worth at least a moment’s self-reflection on the part of the public, which after all elects (and often re-elects) our public officials. We may not like the political jars of clay that have been produced. But in America, it is worth recalling that “we the people” are, in the end, the potters.



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