Commentary Magazine


Topic: government

The Obama Era and the Collapse of Trust in Our Governing Institutions

According to a new survey by the Gallup organization:

Americans’ confidence in all three branches of the U.S. government has fallen, reaching record lows for the Supreme Court (30%) and Congress (7%), and a six-year low for the presidency (29%). The presidency had the largest drop of the three branches this year, down seven percentage points from its previous rating of 36%.

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According to a new survey by the Gallup organization:

Americans’ confidence in all three branches of the U.S. government has fallen, reaching record lows for the Supreme Court (30%) and Congress (7%), and a six-year low for the presidency (29%). The presidency had the largest drop of the three branches this year, down seven percentage points from its previous rating of 36%.

These findings are a powerful indictment of the Obama presidency. But they are also part of a broader, extraordinary collapse of trust in government we’ve witnessed during the last 50 years.

After his landslide election in 1964, Lyndon Johnson proclaimed that Americans were living in “the most hopeful times in all the years since Christ was born in Bethlehem.”

Not exactly.

In fact, in less than four years America lurched from one of our more tranquil political periods to perhaps the most tumultuous since the Civil War. It happened in the blink of a historical eye, and it was driven by a complex set of factors, some the result of public policy and some not, but eventually the accretion heavily implicated government.

The public, especially young people, began to turn against the Vietnam War, to the point that President Johnson–battered and broken–decided not to run for reelection in 1968. Student protests spread, including onto college campuses. The nation was convulsed during the struggle over civil rights, while cities burned in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Robert Kennedy was murdered just two months later–and only five years after his brother was gunned down in Dallas. We experienced the killings at Kent State and the March on the Pentagon, Woodstock and Watergate, black power salutes in the Mexico City Olympics and violence at the Democratic Convention in Chicago. Social pathologies–including crime, drug use, out-of-wedlock births, those on welfare, and more–worsened. And trust in government eroded at an extraordinary pace.

According to the Pew Research Center, in 1964, 76 percent of the public said they trusted government in Washington to do what was right most of the time or just about always. Just a decade later, the figure had fallen to 36 percent. By 1980, it dropped to 25 percent. In only a decade and a half, trust in government fell by 50 percentage points. We have never seen anything quite like it.

While public trust increased during the presidency of Ronald Reagan (to 47 percent), it dropped sharply following it. By the summer of 1994 public trust was at 17 percent, the lowest recorded. Those figures fluctuated during the Clinton second term, falling to 24 percent during the run-up to the Clinton impeachment trial but rising to more than 40 percent by the end of the Clinton presidency (June 2000). During George W. Bush’s first term, public trust in government spiked to more than 60 percent in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. But by October 2008, in the midst of the financial crisis, trust was again down to 17 percent.

This deep, durable unhappiness with government, and the longing of the public to once again believe in it, was something that Barack Obama brilliantly tapped into during his campaign for the presidency. The centerpiece of his run was not a particular policy; it was the promise to elevate our political debates and restore government to a respected place in our national life.

Yet here we are, in the sixth year of the Obama presidency, with the level of confidence in his presidency (29 percent) lower than at a comparable point for any of his predecessors and the ratings for the legislative and judicial branches at or near their lowest points to date.

I can’t say that these judgments are unwarranted. But I’m not convinced that such corrosive mistrust of our governing institutions is particularly good for our country, either. In a free nation, massive distrust of our governing institutions is a self-indictment of sorts. Government is, after all, the “offspring of our own choice,” in the words of George Washington, who added it has

a just claim to your confidence and your support. Respect for its authority, compliance with its laws, acquiescence in its measures are duties enjoined by the fundamental maxims of true liberty.

Today respect for government’s authority has never been lower, and the American people cannot be happy with this state of affairs or with themselves. In the wake of the Obama era, where expectations were raised to such dizzying heights, only to collapse into ruins, the public will be understandably wary about the next person promising to heal the planet and repair the world, who claims the power to halt the rise of the ocean tides, who says that this time will be different than all the rest and declares that “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” (To remind yourself of the stratospheric expectations set by Mr. Obama, I’d urge you to watch this short clip of Obama in 2008.)

Given where we are, it seems to me that the proper response from a Republican candidate is not to celebrate in this distrust but to help correct it; to candidly and with some sophistication explain why it’s happened and to show how a modern conservative governing agenda (perhaps something along these lines) can help restore trust in a responsible, limited government. With the Obama presidency lying in ashes, and with liberalism itself terribly damaged, an opportunity exists. Who on the right will seize it?

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Note to President Obama: IRS Scandal Is Why We Distrust Government

While almost all liberals and Democrats are still in denial about the implications of the Benghazi scandal, none of them is choosing to defend the IRS officials who targeted Tea Party groups for investigations that would deny them tax-exempt status. Like the White House, the chattering classes are united in decrying the blatantly illegal actions by what we are told were just low-level IRS employees. But the universal condemnation of these acts doesn’t mean that this administration can shrug this story off as easily as that. The IRS investigations aren’t merely a chilling abuse of power. They go straight to the heart of conservative distrust of Barack Obama’s worldview.

Seven days ago, President Obama went to the Ohio State University to give a commencement address during which he heaped scorn on those who oppose his efforts to expand the power of government:

Unfortunately, you’ve grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems; some of these same voices also doing their best to gum up the works. They’ll warn that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner. You should reject these voices.

But the problem here is not just that a branch of that government has been caught using their almost unlimited power to harass political opponents of the president. It is, as Ross Douthat points out today in the New York Times, that the president and his cheerleaders in the press have spent the last three years demonizing those targeted by the IRS. There was, of course, one element to his indictment of this mentality that he left out: That his own newspaper had actually editorialized in favor of this harassment in March of 2012.

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While almost all liberals and Democrats are still in denial about the implications of the Benghazi scandal, none of them is choosing to defend the IRS officials who targeted Tea Party groups for investigations that would deny them tax-exempt status. Like the White House, the chattering classes are united in decrying the blatantly illegal actions by what we are told were just low-level IRS employees. But the universal condemnation of these acts doesn’t mean that this administration can shrug this story off as easily as that. The IRS investigations aren’t merely a chilling abuse of power. They go straight to the heart of conservative distrust of Barack Obama’s worldview.

Seven days ago, President Obama went to the Ohio State University to give a commencement address during which he heaped scorn on those who oppose his efforts to expand the power of government:

Unfortunately, you’ve grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems; some of these same voices also doing their best to gum up the works. They’ll warn that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner. You should reject these voices.

But the problem here is not just that a branch of that government has been caught using their almost unlimited power to harass political opponents of the president. It is, as Ross Douthat points out today in the New York Times, that the president and his cheerleaders in the press have spent the last three years demonizing those targeted by the IRS. There was, of course, one element to his indictment of this mentality that he left out: That his own newspaper had actually editorialized in favor of this harassment in March of 2012.

As John Podhoretz wrote here on Friday, groups with the words “Tea Party” and “Patriot” aren’t the only ones that have been singled out for suspiciously political investigations during the last four years. COMMENTARY magazine was given the business in this manner in 2009, and who knows how many others may have gotten the same treatment?

While the orders to the IRS might not be able to be traced directly back to the president, there’s no doubt the officials that took these steps were acting in the spirit of the president’s efforts to treat those who are his critics as being out of the American mainstream.

As I wrote on Monday:

The fear of tyranny Obama cited isn’t an invention of the Koch brothers or the Tea Party, it can be found in the writings of Thomas Jefferson and most of the founders. They worried that our “experiment in self-rule” would fail specifically because of over-reaching on the part of the government or a blind obedience to the vagaries of public opinion. Our Constitution was written by men who understood that the key principle of American democracy must be a system of checks and balances that was designed to frustrate people like Obama who want to shove their big ideas about re-engineering our society and government down the throats of the voters. They placed obstacles in the path of such leaders in the form of representative government institutions that are supposed to go slow and invariably give voice to those who are more interested in holding government accountable than in growing it. Supporting this instinct isn’t cynical, nor is it a function of special interests. It is democracy in its purest and most American form.

What I didn’t know on Monday was that the government headed by the president was about to provide us with an egregious example of exactly why Americans should distrust their government. There is a long and dishonorable tradition of using the IRS to target political opponents of the party in power. Such actions were cited in the articles of impeachment of Richard Nixon and it is well known that Franklin Roosevelt played the same game with impunity against those on his own enemy’s list.

But while Nixon and Roosevelt simply went after specific political foes, what we have seen under Obama is an effort to brand all those who question his philosophy as being somehow beyond the pale of decent society. Under those circumstances why wouldn’t government officials and administrators, whom reports now tell us today knew about these abuses as long ago as 2011 and which may go deeper than initially thought, think nothing of putting the screws to those who believe the president has exceeded his powers?

I’ve no doubt that Congress will investigate this scandal with a bipartisan will that so far is lacking on Benghazi. That will probably result in heads rolling at the IRS. But the problem goes far deeper than the misguided unfortunates who listened to the president’s rhetoric and drew the logical conclusions.

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America’s Schizophrenic Views Toward the Nanny State

In a recent Pew Research Center poll, we’re told:

Even as public views of the federal government in Washington have fallen to another new low, the public continues to see their state and local governments in a favorable light. Overall, 63% say they have a favorable opinion of their local government, virtually unchanged over recent years. And 57% express a favorable view of their state government – a five-point uptick from last year. By contrast, just 28% rate the federal government in Washington favorably. That is down five points from a year ago and the lowest percentage ever in a Pew Research Center survey.

In examining the partisan breakdown, the Pew poll shows that there has been a steep decline in the share of Democrats expressing a favorable opinion of the federal government since Mr. Obama took office, from 61 percent in July 2009 to 41 percent currently. Favorable opinions also have fallen among Republicans over this period, from 24 percent to 13 percent—the lowest ever favorable rating among members of either party.

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In a recent Pew Research Center poll, we’re told:

Even as public views of the federal government in Washington have fallen to another new low, the public continues to see their state and local governments in a favorable light. Overall, 63% say they have a favorable opinion of their local government, virtually unchanged over recent years. And 57% express a favorable view of their state government – a five-point uptick from last year. By contrast, just 28% rate the federal government in Washington favorably. That is down five points from a year ago and the lowest percentage ever in a Pew Research Center survey.

In examining the partisan breakdown, the Pew poll shows that there has been a steep decline in the share of Democrats expressing a favorable opinion of the federal government since Mr. Obama took office, from 61 percent in July 2009 to 41 percent currently. Favorable opinions also have fallen among Republicans over this period, from 24 percent to 13 percent—the lowest ever favorable rating among members of either party.

About this poll I have an observation and a question. On the former, I would guess the poll reflects, at least in part, the damaging effects of liberalism on the public’s views toward government. What liberalism has done, in the person and presidency of Barack Obama, is take a theoretical debate about the Nanny State and make it real. And unpleasant. It’s worth pointing out that confidence in government rose under President Reagan, who tried, with some success, to re-limit it. But it’s not simply the unprecedented size of government that is eroding confidence in the federal government; it’s also incompetence. See the Affordable Care Act and the stimulus package for more.

As for the question: Why exactly do Americans continue to vote for politicians and support policies that entrusts more and more power to the federal government? As Powerline.com’s John Hinderaker asks, “Why do voters whose instincts are seemingly conservative nevertheless vote for liberal politicians?”

It may be that in general the public is skeptical of the federal government, yet on individual issues people are persuaded that it will do things better and more effectively than state and local governments. Or it may be something else. Whatever the case, the public is investing more and more authority into an institution in which it has less and less confidence, which is not a terribly good thing for a self-governing nation. One might think that Republicans should be able to leverage the public’s skepticism toward the federal government in a way that advances their interests. Of course, that should have been the case in 2012, too–and what the GOP got instead was a drubbing.

America can sometimes be a most curious country.   

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Metaphysics and Politics in the Modern Age

In a National Affairs essay, my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague George Weigel writes about the importance of metaphysics to our political and social life. 

According to Weigel, “there is a morally significant givenness to reality: a structure of The Way Things Are that can be discerned by reason and that, being known, disclosed certain truths about the way we should live.” He goes on to argue that “public policy that fosters individual human flourishing and the common good must take account of reality, and realities”–but worries that a “post-modern insouciance” about the deep truths embedded in the world and in us is having, and will continue to have, profoundly harmful effects on American society. We live in a time in which everything is up for grabs, in which many people view the human condition as plastic and malleable, and that “in a culture without metaphysics, the one trump card in public life becomes individual willfulness.”

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In a National Affairs essay, my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague George Weigel writes about the importance of metaphysics to our political and social life. 

According to Weigel, “there is a morally significant givenness to reality: a structure of The Way Things Are that can be discerned by reason and that, being known, disclosed certain truths about the way we should live.” He goes on to argue that “public policy that fosters individual human flourishing and the common good must take account of reality, and realities”–but worries that a “post-modern insouciance” about the deep truths embedded in the world and in us is having, and will continue to have, profoundly harmful effects on American society. We live in a time in which everything is up for grabs, in which many people view the human condition as plastic and malleable, and that “in a culture without metaphysics, the one trump card in public life becomes individual willfulness.”

In the similar vein, Ken Myers, host and creator of the Mars Hill Audio Journal, recently interviewed Adrian Pabst of the University of Kent on metaphysics. In the course of their discussion Myers pointed out that “our peculiarly modern disorders are tied to confusion regarding metaphysics.” Politics today typically excludes the question of the nature of things, he argues–and added that we falsely assume we can talk about things like wealth creation, justice, marriage and other matters without talking about what things are real and which are not. “Behind public policy is a vision of the common good,” according to Myers, “and behind a vision of the common good is a vision of the good.” What we need to do is retrieve metaphysics from the shadows if we hope to get things right.

I’m quite sympathetic to these arguments, including for entirely practical reasons. Because the suppositions we begin with determine the lives we lead, the laws we pass, the institutions we build, and the civilizations we create.

And so, for example, the architects of our Republic not only carefully studied history; they made judgments about human nature and designed a constitutional form of government around them. Men are not angels, but they are capable of virtue. We are capable of self-government but not to be trusted with absolute power. Adam Smith, a moral philosopher, believed capitalism depended on taking into account self-interest. It makes a world of difference, then, if we operate on the assumptions of Rousseau or Jefferson, Nietzsche or St. Paul, Marx or Madison.

Now it would be silly to expect ordinary Americans to sound like graduates of the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought. At the same time, it really would help our political discourse if we paid a bit more attention to metaphysical premises, if for no other reason than to identify, with some precision, points of intellectual, moral and political departure. Doing this may not resolve our political conflicts, but it would go some distance toward clarifying them. And once having done that, we can then explain, hopefully with care and persuasiveness, that philosophical errors at the beginning can lead to human suffering at the end, just as getting things right at the outset can result in human flourishing and fulfillment.

As a well-known carpenter from the first century put it, you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.

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The Law as a Moral Teacher

Earlier this week, I spoke to a group of young professionals, most of whom are conservative. And one of the conversations I had was with a person who was asking me about the link between culture and politics, arguing—as others I know have—that culture is “upstream,” and therefore in many respects more important, than politics.

This question reminded me of a passage from the late Alexander Bickel’s book The Morality of Consent, which deals in part with the competing traditions of Locke-Rousseau and Edmund Burke in Western thought and in American constitutionalism and political process:

The unexamined life, said Socrates, is not worth living. Nor is it bearable. To acknowledge no values at all is to deny a difference between ourselves and other particles that tumble in space. The irreducible value, though not the exclusive one, is the idea of law. Law is more than just another opinion; not because it embodies all right values, or because the values it does embody tend from time to time to reflect those of a majority or plurality, but because it is the value of values. Law is the principal institution through which a society can assert its values.

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Earlier this week, I spoke to a group of young professionals, most of whom are conservative. And one of the conversations I had was with a person who was asking me about the link between culture and politics, arguing—as others I know have—that culture is “upstream,” and therefore in many respects more important, than politics.

This question reminded me of a passage from the late Alexander Bickel’s book The Morality of Consent, which deals in part with the competing traditions of Locke-Rousseau and Edmund Burke in Western thought and in American constitutionalism and political process:

The unexamined life, said Socrates, is not worth living. Nor is it bearable. To acknowledge no values at all is to deny a difference between ourselves and other particles that tumble in space. The irreducible value, though not the exclusive one, is the idea of law. Law is more than just another opinion; not because it embodies all right values, or because the values it does embody tend from time to time to reflect those of a majority or plurality, but because it is the value of values. Law is the principal institution through which a society can assert its values.

That statement seems to me to be quite right, and a nice rejoinder to those who say—with what must be barely a moment’s reflection—that we cannot “legislate morality.” In fact, we have legislated/legislate morality all the time—from slavery and segregation, to abortion and same-sex marriage, to welfare and environmental laws, to crime and drug use, to immigration policy and the global AIDS initiative, to much else. Jerry Sandusky was convicted of 45 counts of child abuse because we decided to legislate morality. It’s even said by some, mostly on the left, that the federal budget is a “moral document.” The law is, in fact, the most comprehensive embodiment of what a free society believes. It tells the world, and each other, who we are and what we believe.

This is not to downplay the significance of culture, which is enormously important to a society. But culture is, in some respects, subconscious and pre-social. The law, by contrast, is something that is actively thought out. That doesn’t mean it’s always well thought out, of course. But laws are a self-governing society’s conscious, willful expression of a set of beliefs and convictions. And among other reasons, that is why politics and government are, for all the complaints we (rightly) might have about them, terribly important and, at their best, something of a high calling. That’s worth bearing in mind even, and maybe especially, during a particularly ferocious presidential election.

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More on the Biggest Mistake of Campaign 2012

The damage Barack Obama did to himself in Roanoke, Va. when he said “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that, somebody else made that happen” has become the occasion for his defenders and apologists to say he didn’t say it, or he didn’t really say it, or he’s being taken out of context, or he didn’t mean it, or something.

Fine. Here’s the whole thing:

Look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.

I would argue the context makes the quote worse, not better.

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The damage Barack Obama did to himself in Roanoke, Va. when he said “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that, somebody else made that happen” has become the occasion for his defenders and apologists to say he didn’t say it, or he didn’t really say it, or he’s being taken out of context, or he didn’t mean it, or something.

Fine. Here’s the whole thing:

Look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.

I would argue the context makes the quote worse, not better.

Obama’s utter contempt for the idea that people deserve to prosper due to the fruits of their own labors and their own skills is made even deeper and more apparent from the entire quote.

The president is saying that people who are successful in business do not deserve credit for being successful in business. He scorns those who say “it must be because I was so smart” by citing the fact that there are a lot of smart people out there. So what sets the smart people who do well apart from the smart people who don’t? Is it that they are hard-working? No, of course not, because “there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.” So if you do well, and it’s not because you’re smart or because you’re hardworking, what do you owe your success to?

Answer: “Somebody else.” As in “somebody else made that happen.” Somebody gave you some help. You had a great teacher. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. Not you.

Oh, yes, you. The whole idea of being a productive citizen who pays his taxes in a progressive system is that you are paying your own way—and even more than your own way to help others less fortunate. In other words, you are the one building the roads and bridges, or at least paying more than your share for your own use of them and their maintenance and their upkeep. The government gathers the money from every other user (and everyone else who pays for more than his use to help carry the burden of others who can’t) and pools it. That money is collected and pooled through the actions of a democratically elected legislature and signed into law by a democratically elected president, who are fulfilling the mandate assigned them by you.

Government doesn’t build it. Government doesn’t make it possible. You do.

For the president to say a taxpaying citizen didn’t build the infrastructure he uses is a fundamental denial of the entire concept of a self-governing citizenry.

So Obama defenders really ought to think long and hard about whether they want to continue advancing this meme. The longer it goes on, the worse he will look.

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In Defense of Compassionate Conservatism

The term “compassionate conservatism” is still invoked by some on the right. But for many commentators, compassionate conservatism has become a synonym for Big Government. In fact, it is distinct from — and in important respects the opposite of – the collectivist/statist impulse.

The idea was based on the writings of Richard John Neuhaus and Peter Berger, who argued in their 1977 book To Empower People that “mediating structures” such as family, neighborhood, church, and voluntary and civil associations are crucial institutions that needed to be fortified. One of the more elegant summaries of compassionate conservatism can be found in George Will’s book Statecraft as Soulcraft, where Will wrote:

The institutions that once were most directly responsible for tempering individualism — family , church, voluntary associations, town governments — with collective concerns have come to seem peripheral. Using government discriminatingly but energetically to strengthen these institutions is part of the natural program of conservatives. Far from being a rationale for statism, the political orientation … involves the use of government to prevent statism by enhancing the social competence of citizens. In the best and most mature polities, what government does is encourage society to do things through its organic working. Government can do this by enhancing, in many ways, the vigor of those intermediary institutions which shape, support and inspire individuals, drawing persons out of the orbits of individualism and into social relationships. One way that government strengthens such institutions is by not usurping their functions. But that is not the only way. Government can plan positive inducements to vigor.

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The term “compassionate conservatism” is still invoked by some on the right. But for many commentators, compassionate conservatism has become a synonym for Big Government. In fact, it is distinct from — and in important respects the opposite of – the collectivist/statist impulse.

The idea was based on the writings of Richard John Neuhaus and Peter Berger, who argued in their 1977 book To Empower People that “mediating structures” such as family, neighborhood, church, and voluntary and civil associations are crucial institutions that needed to be fortified. One of the more elegant summaries of compassionate conservatism can be found in George Will’s book Statecraft as Soulcraft, where Will wrote:

The institutions that once were most directly responsible for tempering individualism — family , church, voluntary associations, town governments — with collective concerns have come to seem peripheral. Using government discriminatingly but energetically to strengthen these institutions is part of the natural program of conservatives. Far from being a rationale for statism, the political orientation … involves the use of government to prevent statism by enhancing the social competence of citizens. In the best and most mature polities, what government does is encourage society to do things through its organic working. Government can do this by enhancing, in many ways, the vigor of those intermediary institutions which shape, support and inspire individuals, drawing persons out of the orbits of individualism and into social relationships. One way that government strengthens such institutions is by not usurping their functions. But that is not the only way. Government can plan positive inducements to vigor.

What Will wrote tracks quite closely with what George W. Bush said in his first presidential campaign speech on July 22, 1999. How well this concept works in practice is a legitimate issue to debate. But to use government to strengthen mediating structures is quite a different approach than taking over their duties.

With that said, let’s turn to the broader topic of the relationship between compassion and government. Compassion, it’s said by some, is a private virtue, not a public one, and for government to pursue compassion simply ends up creating mischief. That has certainly occurred in some instances. (The old paradigm of the welfare state, Neuhaus and Berger wrote, is to locate a social problem; define it as a government responsibility; and set up a government program designed to solve it.) But to say that for government to concern itself with compassion is per se inappropriate is itself problematic.

If by compassion we mean to feel distress at the suffering of others and having a desire to alleviate it, then government – within limits, with wisdom – can play a constructive role. We see that with relief efforts after earthquakes and hurricanes. We saw it with the Global AIDS initiative (a study at the University of British Columbia found that the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief saved 1.2 million lives in just its first three years). And few conservatives I know are in principle opposed to unemployment insurance (the debate is over how long it should be given) or welfare payments to those who, through no fault of their own, are nearly destitute. These views are based on a certain view of justice, which is rooted in a Jewish and Christian view of human dignity and the common good. But a proper conservative (and American) understanding of promoting the general welfare includes helping the poor and the powerless. Public institutions should help the most vulnerable members of the human community. The question is, always, one of prudence and efficacy.

I’ve long thought it was a mistake to cede the ground of compassion and concern for the poor to liberalism. One of the reasons some of us became conservatives in the first place was in part because we believed liberalism had failed on precisely these grounds; that conservatism had something important to say when it came to caring for the weak and disadvantaged in society. That is a public as well as a private concern. That is why the wisest voices on the right believed welfare reform should be framed not as an attack on the poor or as a matter on which government should have no say and no role, but rather as a way to help them on the path toward self-sufficiency and dignity. Welfare reform succeeded because government policy took into account human nature. It rested on the proper presuppositions.

I understand that times change and new political moments give rise to different emphases. Today, for perfectly understandable reasons, there is enormous focus among conservative on re-limiting government, one I fully support. But that effort should not lead people to argue against compassion in the realm of public policy. To insist the state should be indifferent to the suffering of the poor is not a conservative virtue. The quality of mercy is not strain’d, Portia says in The Merchant of Venice, and earthly power doth show likest God’s when mercy seasons justice.

How to make that work in the real world is enormously complicated. But here’s something we can say with some confidence: It isn’t a violation of the conservative creed for the state, within all the right parameters, to attempt to season justice with mercy.

 

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Democracy Only Works If You Use It

In his column today, Charles Krauthammer offers cautious praise for the health-care wars:

for all the hand-wringing about broken government, partisanship, divisiveness and gridlock, it’s hard to recall a more informed, more detailed, more serious, more prolonged national debate than on health care reform. . . So, in the middle of the current food fight, as the plates and the tarts and the sharper cutlery fly, step back for a moment. Hail the untidiness. Hail democracy. Hail the rotation of power. Yes, even when Democrats gain office.

All of the fighting, even the polarization, would be easier to hail if the Democrats were not sidestepping it. Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid are seeking to change the fundamental nature of the country, not by triumphing in rigorous debate, but rather by exploiting a procedural loophole that would allow them to act against the will of the people.

The citizens of this country have historically enjoyed a unique level of influence on their government. But we are now spectators before whom a cadre of floundering ideologues seeks to sever the trusts that make consensual governance consensual. The Democrats lost the public debate. Ask them if they care.

When Barack Obama’s approval ratings plunged months back, Fouad Ajami wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “The curtain has come down on what can best be described as a brief un-American moment in our history.” If only that were so. In truth, the curtain came down on the public’s compliance with our un-American moment. For our current leaders, the mission goes forward. Plan B, it turns out, is as alien to the American experience as Plan A. Having failed to reshape our democracy through demagoguery, Obama is attempting to subvert it by decree. If he needs to dispense with the “we” in “yes we can,” so be it. The “our” in “our time is now”? Gone.

As the President and Nancy Pelosi have explained, they’re down to yes and now. Here’s how Pelosi recently described her health-care battle stance:

We will go through the gate. If the gate is closed, we will go over the fence. If the fence is too high, we will pole vault in. If that doesn’t work, we will parachute in. But we are going to get health care reform passed for the American people for their own personal health and economic security and for the important role that it will play in reducing the deficit.

The barriers she cites are none other than the checks and balances, the procedural roadblocks, put in place centuries ago so that no lawmaker or executive could force policy upon the American people “for their own personal health and economic security.” Speaker Pelosi’s statement is not merely colorful evidence of tenacity and cunning. It is a contemptuous dismissal of democracy. Just as the plan for socialist annexation of one sixth of the economy is a dismissal of free-market capitalism.

If the fundamentals of our democratic republic remain intact, it will be because of the genius of the system of governance itself. Then, we can hail until the cows come home.

In his column today, Charles Krauthammer offers cautious praise for the health-care wars:

for all the hand-wringing about broken government, partisanship, divisiveness and gridlock, it’s hard to recall a more informed, more detailed, more serious, more prolonged national debate than on health care reform. . . So, in the middle of the current food fight, as the plates and the tarts and the sharper cutlery fly, step back for a moment. Hail the untidiness. Hail democracy. Hail the rotation of power. Yes, even when Democrats gain office.

All of the fighting, even the polarization, would be easier to hail if the Democrats were not sidestepping it. Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid are seeking to change the fundamental nature of the country, not by triumphing in rigorous debate, but rather by exploiting a procedural loophole that would allow them to act against the will of the people.

The citizens of this country have historically enjoyed a unique level of influence on their government. But we are now spectators before whom a cadre of floundering ideologues seeks to sever the trusts that make consensual governance consensual. The Democrats lost the public debate. Ask them if they care.

When Barack Obama’s approval ratings plunged months back, Fouad Ajami wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “The curtain has come down on what can best be described as a brief un-American moment in our history.” If only that were so. In truth, the curtain came down on the public’s compliance with our un-American moment. For our current leaders, the mission goes forward. Plan B, it turns out, is as alien to the American experience as Plan A. Having failed to reshape our democracy through demagoguery, Obama is attempting to subvert it by decree. If he needs to dispense with the “we” in “yes we can,” so be it. The “our” in “our time is now”? Gone.

As the President and Nancy Pelosi have explained, they’re down to yes and now. Here’s how Pelosi recently described her health-care battle stance:

We will go through the gate. If the gate is closed, we will go over the fence. If the fence is too high, we will pole vault in. If that doesn’t work, we will parachute in. But we are going to get health care reform passed for the American people for their own personal health and economic security and for the important role that it will play in reducing the deficit.

The barriers she cites are none other than the checks and balances, the procedural roadblocks, put in place centuries ago so that no lawmaker or executive could force policy upon the American people “for their own personal health and economic security.” Speaker Pelosi’s statement is not merely colorful evidence of tenacity and cunning. It is a contemptuous dismissal of democracy. Just as the plan for socialist annexation of one sixth of the economy is a dismissal of free-market capitalism.

If the fundamentals of our democratic republic remain intact, it will be because of the genius of the system of governance itself. Then, we can hail until the cows come home.

Read Less




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