Monday, March 1, 2010

When Will “The People” Grow Up?

After the uprising of the 17th June
The Secretary of the Writers Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?
I’m reminded of Brecht’s words every time I read something like this from Evan Thomas (subtitled:  "Washington is Working Just Fine: It's Us That's Broken"):
“Watching your government at work can be an appalling spectacle. Politicians posture and bicker, and not much gets done. It's gotten so bad—or at least seems so bad—that pundits are beginning to wonder if the system is broken in some fundamental way and to cast about for a big fix. Some little fixes might help—reforming the Senate filibuster would be a start. But the nation is not about to have a constitutional convention, and we don't need one. The Founders got it right, more or less, some 220 years ago, when they created a system of checks and balances that permits the exercise of power while protecting the rights of individuals and political minorities.
“The problem is not the system. It's us—our "got mine" culture of entitlement. Politicians, never known for their bravery, precisely represent the people. Our leaders are paralyzed by the very thought of asking their constituents to make short-term sacrifices for long-term rewards. They cannot bring themselves to raise taxes on the middle class or cut Social Security and medical benefits for the elderly. They'd get clobbered at the polls. So any day of reckoning gets put off, and put off again, and the debts pile up.”
When I say this is nonsense, I’m trying not to speak loosely. What Thomas is saying isn’t merely false (like saying “Derek Jeter plays second base”), it’s unintelligible (like saying “Derek Jeter is identical”). He’s speaking of “us” as if we were one big person with a child’s psychology. We “the people” are a big baby without the maturity to know that we can’t evade hard choices indefinitely; we want simultaneously to enjoy incompatible benefits without paying the costs associated with the realization of each of them. So when congress fails, for example, to pass a healthcare reform, it’s mirroring our collective lack of fortitude and good sense back at us.

But we’re just 300 million individuals each with our own psychology. We’re only "a people” with a unitary will, by virtue of the operation of some social decision procedure. For better or worse, our collective “will” is an artifact of the procedures determining how a bill becomes a law in our political system.

As of yet, healthcare reform hasn’t passed those hurdles, and it looks like it may never pass them. But we’re only part way through a process of generating the people’s will about healthcare that’s been going on since the New Deal. The next steps will be an attempt by Democrats to pass a bill through some combination of ping pong by the House and reconciliation in the Senate and then elections which will either ratify or repudiate their efforts.  And then more legislative maneuvering and elections after that.  A snapshot of the state of play through the lens of a disfiguring metaphor doesn’t mean a thing.

You know, of course, where Thomas’s narrative is heading. If “the people" is one petulant child, it needs political leaders to play the role of responsible parents. And that means we need to submit to stern lectures from (you guessed it) "leaders" with Evan Bayh’s zeal for sanctimonious bipartisanship.
"Leadership requires a willingness to make the hard and sometimes un-pleasant choice. . . . . [T]o get something you have to give up something. That is the true test of compromise. In a poignant op-ed piece in the Times, Sen. Evan Bayh explained why he is not seeking reelection. While acknowledging that it would be a mistake to romanticize "the Senate of yore" inhabited by his father, former senator Birch Bayh, he recalled the more human and humane world of his father, when senators from different parties would socialize together—and offer to help with each other's campaigns, even if that meant jeopardizing their party's majority. "This is unimaginable today," wrote Bayh."

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