Saturday, April 16, 2005

Column on Corruption of American Politics

Why American Politics Has Gone Nuts

Tibor R. Machan

Have you noticed? There doesn?t appear to be any room for civil discourse
in politics these days. There is no issue about which the disputing
parties merely argue?the other side just has to be vicious, lying,
deceiving, cheating, wishing simply to hurt some people, moved by
mendacity while we are, of course, pure of heart. There isn?t a discussion
of the merits, the pros and the cons, only of who is evil, who is not.

Take the social security reform issue. Bush supporters see their
opponents as caring nothing about the upcoming plight of young people,
while his opponents must be uncaring toward old people. That seems to be
the essence of it now. Or the war in Iraq. It isn?t about whether the
policy is sound, but what Bush and Cheney must be gaining from it, or why
opponents must all be Saddamites, lovers of a tyrant.

Well, I have an idea why things have gotten to be so acrimonious in
American politics. It concerns the utter corruption of the nature of
American government.

When America?s founders embarked upon establishing the country, they laid
out a vision about its basic ideals and ideas. They so stated this in the
Declaration of Independence. The country was to be based on certain
fundamental principles about human nature, namely, that everyone has,
simply as a human being, certain unalienable rights?to life, liberty, and
the pursuit of happiness, among others?and that it is government?s
function to secure these rights. The rest is all details?important ones,
admittedly, but details nonetheless. It?s about how to do this basic task,
not about what is to be done. That latter issue had been largely
settled?government was supposed to deal with crime and foreign aggression,
little else. For this it has to have certain powers which were spelled out
in the Constitution but otherwise it was the people?you, I, and everyone
else in the country who was to be free to do what he or she chooses and
all our problems were to be solved by us, not the government, which had
its task set: keeping the peace.

Now, admittedly, this is to look at the matter a bit simply. But still
the picture is basically right. The Founders wanted a free country with a
government of strictly limited powers for the purpose of securing our
rights to be free to do what we needed to do in our highly diverse lives.

Already back then it was clear that America is a country with a highly
diverse citizenry. In 1798 a young man, J. M. Holley, wrote to his brother
that ?the diversity of dress, manners, & customs is greater in America,
than in any other country in the world, the reason of which, is very
obvious. It is considered as a country where people enjoy liberty and
independence; of course, persons from allmost every nation in the world,
come here as to an assylum from oppression; Each brings with him
prejudices in favor of the habits of his own countrymen....? (Quoted in
?Endpaper,? The New York Times Book Review, November 5, 1995, p. 46).

So what is national politics to be about in such a place? It is, to quote
that failed presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, to be ?about
competence,? that?s all. Who are to administer the system best? It wasn?t
to be about whether the country is to go Right or Left or Christian or
Muslim or socialist or capitalist. None of that was to be debated because
that debate was over once the fundamentals were laid out and country had
been founded.

Alas, this is now all gone. The party politics we have is not about
fielding candidates for a specific job but about whether America will have
this or that kind of government?big, small, democratic, welfare statist,
liberal, conservative or whatever.

It wasn?t supposed to be this way at all. But because now the dispute is
about what kind of country we should have, party politics has degenerated
into combat, with hostile camps peddling their respective conceptions of
society and dismissing opponents as enemies instead of treating them as
contestants. And that is not what American politics set out to be, not in
its essence.

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