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The Curse of Our Times

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By The New York Times' account, Democrats, viewed en masse, want it all -- ideological commitment without impurities of one insulting sort or another. Plus electoral victory, don't you know?

To get it, they have only to convince voters. Good luck. Not even the Times seems long on the prospect of a left-wing strategy, a la Bernie Sanders, sweeping the nation, blowing away the taint of Trumpism.

"Democrats," the Times reports, "are facing a widening breach in their party, as liberal activists dream of transforming the health care system and impeaching President Trump, while candidates in hard-fought elections ask wary voters merely for a fresh chance at governing." Over the weekend, Bernie fans in Chicago whooped it up for revolution; in Northern Georgia, a hopeful Democrat seeking the seat once occupied by Newt Gingrich tried to calm expectations, promising the conservatives he would oppose single-payer (essentially, socialized) health care and the tax hikes necessary to fund it.

What a political moment -- wherein the only essential thing is to shout out your demands and wait for someone to deliver them.

We will continue to face, for a while at least, the exhaustion of the new style in politics: the yelling style, the demanding style, the kick-'em-in-the-face style. We want it now! We want it all! That's what it comes down to, save that it doesn't work in the real world.

There are too many of us for it to work: and not just too many people. Too many ideas float around in public discourse, all with special appeal to interests unable to convey that appeal to the differently minded. Hillary Clinton's campaign failed for just such reasons; so did the Sanders campaign. The Trump campaign, successful in electoral terms, finds itself challenged in putting together a strategy for all the things President Trump was thought to stand for, starting with "repealing and replacing" Obamacare. The Affordable Care Act, a model of "I want it now" politics, isn't going anywhere for a while, seeing as no one can figure what the voters would accept in its place.

The reign of electoral politics in our lives -- the endless talk about things that aren't going to get done, and likely wouldn't get done right if they did get enacted through maneuvering and compromise -- is the curse of the times.

The whole political system under which we live and obsess may have to crash for us to get the point. And if that happens, we still may not understand, so inveterate are our habits of reaching out to the political fraternity for resolution of every grievance, the fulfilment of every hope.

We don't understand that politicians are people just like the rest of us: no smarter as a class, no better tuned in to the realities of the day for having attended law school. They have a certain energy and ambition -- which may proceed from attendance at law school. They smell power in the air, and they love the thrill of being noticed and applauded for saying things certain groups and factions yearn to hear. The pay is good, too, with always the prospect of going into lobbying work or consultancy, if the electoral thing somehow doesn't work out.

The problems of mankind are more commonly measurable on scales that weigh cultural and moral, rather than strictly political, concerns: e.g., what kind of men and women should we be? What would being that kind involve -- what species of work, behavior, discipline, integrity, understanding of the permanent things (to use T.S. Eliot's valuable phrase)?

The character of a democracy's citizens generally ranks higher among great concerns than do their political obsessions. Only it's so much easier to cheer a speech -- still better, a rant -- than to acknowledge with appreciation the disciplines of the heart and the mind.

But, oh! I began by talking about Congress and single-payer health care! How'd I ever get to tangential matters like virtue? Must have my head in the past -- which is not a bad refuge, come to think of it, from single-payer health care and the fate of Newt Gingrich's congressional district!

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