That old black government magic

Bill Murchison
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Posted: Jun 21, 2005 12:00 AM

You'll want to look hard beneath headlines like "Bush Approval Falls in Nationwide Polls" (the New York Times) to notice what's missing.

 Which is? I'll spoil it for you: The thing that's missing is any sense of what the people want their president to do in order to earn their approval.

 We don't like what he's doing -- and we don't know exactly what he ought to be doing.

 Same with Congress, which had an approval rating, in the New York Times/CBS poll, lower still than Bush's. "They're not getting anything done," one Republican homemaker complained to a reporter. " ... [T]hey're forgetting the basic needs of the people." And those needs are ... ?

 If the lady elucidated, it's not reported. The unspoken question hangs there: The basic needs of the people are ? ?

 We really can't leave it at that, because polls of this sort underline a particular fragility in contemporary American politics; that is, our habit -- encouraged by the media -- of referring to the political process all our disaffections, unhappinesses, dilemmas and so forth; then, expressing more disaffection, unhappiness, etc., concerning whatever outcome the political process produces. We don't know exactly what we want, but we'll know it when we don't see it -- which is normally.

 For seven decades -- since the New Deal -- growing numbers of Americans have ascribed to the federal government the power to make them happy or at least content, or if not content, then moderately prosperous, and if not moderately prosperous, then secure in the knowledge of a safety net beneath their beds and lives.

 All this is what we've come to think of as the American way of life. We want our leaders to defend that way of life. We're just not entirely sure of the best defensive weapons to use.

 The American way of life is a beguiling mixture: some rugged individualism, some thumb-sucking dependency. At regular intervals, we elect leaders to use some combination of those formulas. We really seem not to care which. We're interested in ends, not means. The ends are (see above) happiness and prosperity. We assume Congress is laboring constantly toward these ends. When all we hear instead is charges and counter-charges, accusations and rebuttals, we assume nothing is going on.

 In fact, a lot is going on. Two generally competing philosophies -- individualism and dependency -- are fighting it out for our attention. For the nonce, dependency seems to claim the larger share of attention. That would be from habit as much as anything else.

 On Social Security, the habit of expecting in some undefined way to come up with the resources for the old ages we plan to spend by the fireside with grandchildren capering nearby -- that habit is hard to overcome. The president tries to explain what the problem is and how we need more individual initiative (read: private accounts), and we're morose and unhappy, even though we have no specific alternatives. The longer Congress seems bogged down, the more morose and unhappy we grow. We don't know the solution, but whatever we don't see -- that's probably it.

 Energy, the environment, stem cell research, judicial nominations -- it's all pretty much the same.

 There's nothing in this state of affairs to make either Democrats or Republicans surpassingly happy. The Democrats brag on their skill at blocking Republican initiatives. Return the Democrats to power, though, as some day we will, and they'll find us as fretful and hard to please as ever.

 It all comes down to a basic proposition: Government can't solve basic human problems. We only think it can, having been led to think so by decades of academic and journalistic propaganda. No government can know what's best for nearly 300 million people; only the people themselves have the slightest intuition.

 On we go anyway -- one Congress after another prescribing in different flavor and degree the medicine of government. And polls recording the same old yawns, the same growls of discontent and remorse.