America’s ongoing nervous breakdown — Donald Trump high atop the GOP presidential polls, a self-proclaimed socialist earning Democratic affections, law officers as shooting-gallery ducks, Anthony Kennedy as supreme moral arbiter — has roots in human nature, to be sure. These roots are entangled with the touchingly human faith that, given the right set of governing officials, government can straighten out all our vexations. Today we seem to believe that’s the core problem — the wrong people are in office. From a range of perspectives, the government seems to consist of the brainless and self-interested. Against such a menagerie, Trump, to the nearsighted, looks pretty good. At least he’s met payrolls.
A new Washington Post-ABC News poll, as reported by the Post, says, “More than 7 in 10 Americans say people in politics cannot be trusted. More than 6 in 10 say the political system is dysfunctional. Sizable majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents agree with those assessments.”
It seems that the less we study history, the more we claim perfect knowledge of history. It’s even become popular to sort out, through moral inspiration rather than research, the agonizingly complex causes of the Civil War. If we merely read the Bible once in a while we might figure out what a bad rap government has eternally gotten — and deserved. I quote from 1 Samuel 8:15-19: “(The king) will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards. … He will take the tenth of your sheep; and ye shall be his servants. … Nevertheless, the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel; and they said, Nay; but we will have a king over us.”
Got anything to add to that, Brother Donald?
One might think the point would sink in eventually: Government (properly) excites more fear than feats of rhapsodic verse. Which is the reason Henry David Thoreau noted perspicaciously that the best government is the least government. The less government you have, the fewer services you get. But you also have fewer expectations and less disappointment and, finally, hot fury.
The inverse is likewise true.
The more government you get, the more polls you see like that of the Washington Post and ABC News, showing not merely exasperation but something like despair concerning the ability of new office-holders to mop up the mess made by the current crop.
Picture, if you can, the likes of The Donald sashaying into the 1912 presidential race, which featured three giants, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson, all of whom would have peered blankly at him over their spectacles and said something to the effect of, “What in the name of…?”
It was a different time. Ironically, that was the moment of the original drum-tap to the hurried upward march of American government. Roosevelt increasingly favored government interventions of one kind and another. Under Wilson, who actually won the election, Congress enacted the progressive income tax and created the Federal Reserve System. Bill Taft — my man, if I’d been living then — was the do-nothing of the trio. From approximately that point Americans came to demand of their government myriad measures of social betterment.
The vision of the Founding Fathers — government restrained by constitutional prohibitions, and confined mostly to local activity — faded fast in the 20th century. The New Deal pretty much wiped it from the blackboard and from the gospel of political aspiration. It was, after that, Government, Government, Government! More, more, more! Then came the results (not all malignant, not all wrong-headed) that bring us to this present moment.
I hope to be pardoned for the history lesson. We have, all of us, a tendency, very human it is, to suppose that no one has ever had what we have right now — at least not to the same degree. In fact human complexities and challenges are eternal, as are human emotions. The call for new government programs and benefits (paid for, of course, by someone else) goes out whenever enough people believe they don’t have enough; then other parties arise to demand, “What are you talking about, anyway?” That’s pretty much where we are in the year of grace 2015.
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