"I trust in the good judgment of the American people." So said a radio host I admire (not one of the screamers) about six months ago when the rise of Trump was still notional. At this moment, looking at both parties, you have to ask whether judgment is being applied at all or whether we're in the much more dangerous realm of emotional release.
Let's start on the left. Democrats have made careers out of pretending that "government" has money to distribute, that the rich don't pay their fair share of taxes, that most of the problems of black America are attributable to white racism, that deficits can be eliminated by raising taxes on the few at the top, that women are victims in need of government redress and that climate change is the greatest national security threat we face. Fairy tales.
In the past several years, partly due to President Obama's destructive divisiveness, those delusions have deepened, and now, with the influence of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, full-throated socialism commands the affections of Democrats under the age of 30. In Iowa, for example, Sanders won 84 percent of voters between the ages of 17 and 29.
Democrats have plunged lustily into a dumbed-down politics that appeals to the mammalian brain, not the reasoning one. The Black Lives Matter movement demands not justice but rote obeisance. No issue is ever presented in the terms that mature adults should accept, namely, that there are inevitable trade-offs in life and that every policy has costs and benefits. No, now it's "The billionaires are screwing you" or "The system is rigged against you."
Insofar as she has any true convictions at all, the Democrats' likely nominee has trimmed and tacked to the left. She has endorsed a $15 minimum wage, declined to consider entitlement reform and, in a marked shift, now opposes free trade.
Among Republicans, a similar conspiratorial mindset has taken hold. Our problems -- slow growth, crime, increasing inequality -- are the result of an evil cabal. The Democrats believe the cabal is on Wall Street. Large numbers of Republicans locate it in Washington, D.C. And just as Democrats finger the wealthy and Republicans as the source of the ills of the middle class (no longer is anyone shy about making class appeals in America), Trumpkins point to immigrants, crafty foreigners and Washington. By sticking it to the Mexicans and the Chinese and the Muslims and D.C., Trump promises catharsis.
Politicians in a democracy have little incentive to tell voters the truth -- not when voters reward them for telling lies. In due course, voters howl that they have been betrayed, but it's a betrayal they invited.
Has the middle class been stabbed in the back by Washington, D.C.? If so, it's a very pleasant dagger: more entitlements, more spending, more regulation and less concern for debt. The federal government is a vast engine for taxing (disproportionately) the rich and paying benefits to the middle class and the poor. Two-thirds of 2014's $3.5 trillion federal budget went to payments to individuals. These included overlapping categories of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps and other entitlements.
The top 20 percent of taxpayers paid 69 percent of income taxes. The national debt is north of $18 trillion.
Truth serum: Our problems arise from demanding too much of government. We, the middle class, have asked government to make sure everyone (no matter how credit-unworthy) can buy a house. We've demanded that government bring down the prices of health care and education -- with the result that those two sectors have seen the steepest price increases of any in the American economy. We've demanded that corporations pay the highest tax rates in the developed world in the mistaken belief that someone else pays those taxes (when in fact we all pay through higher prices or in the loss of jobs as companies relocate to business-friendlier countries). We've demanded that disability payments become the new welfare, and that political connections substitute for merit among businesses. Every time we vote for a candidate who promises to go to Washington to "fight for you" rather than to shrink government, we're voting for the kind of corruption that we claim to despise. We're empowering those who excel at manipulating political power for private gain.
It is therefore sadly apt that the nominees of the two great political parties could well turn out to be two multimillionaires who've played the middle class for suckers all their lives.