Sunday, December 13, 2009

"Ungovernable" America

Matthew Yglesias has a revelation:
The smarter elements in Washington DC are starting to pick up on the fact that it’s not tactical errors on the part of the president that make it hard to get things done, it’s the fact that the country has become ungovernable.

The funny thing is, I read that comment and think, "I've heard that before." Glenn Reynolds notes that he, back in September, expect the stories of White House incompetence "to play out in thumbsucker columns on whether America is ‘ungovernable,’" and he was certainly right. But why did he use that word, and where have I heard it before?

It strikes me that this was a standard complaint the last time we had a Democrat in office, trying to accomplish things "for the children" that the electorate was too stupid to accept didn't want. Here's Jonathan Rauch from the NY Times in September of 19941, as the Clinton administration has failed to get health care passed and the Republicans are about to take control of the House of Representatives for the first time in two generations:
The Government is well on its way to a crisis of legitimacy. A June Gallup poll indicated that only 17 percent of Americans trust the Government to do what is right most or all of the time...politicians are more careful about appearances than ever; they get prosecuted or denounced these days for everything short of parking in the wrong space. So why does Washington seem to perform so much worse today than in the past?


Multiply this kind of growing "grass-roots" sophistication by the burgeoning number of groups, and the result is pluralism spinning out of control and making the country ungovernable.

As I thought - it's exactly the same complaint, fifteen years ago. Rauch blames lobbyists rather than Republicans, but it doesn't really change anything.

It may be that someone wrote something similar when the Democrats were obstructing George W. Bush on Social Security reform, but I don't remember it, so I don't want to go too far overboard on this. But it strikes me as yet one more difference between the right and the left, how they view Government, what it's for, what it's capable of and what it's limitations are. Think back a few months to Thomas Friedman's lament that Obama didn't have the authority of the Chinese dictators to get things done. Again, evidence of an "ungovernable" America.

Well, they're exactly right. America is "ungovernable." With one caveat. They're using the word "ungovernable" but the idea that they're implying is "unruleable." Because they don't want to govern - they want to rule. They don't want to work with Republicans, deal with grass-roots movements, compromise to improve things. No, they want to impose their rules by fiat. Because, you see, they're smarter and they know better. They are superior human beings and, to get back to a hobby horse I've been flogging recently, they believe that they can impose perfection on the human condition. Utopia is within our grasp if those pesky right-wingers would just get out of the way and let St. Barack engage in his beneficient rule. If you know that you can make things perfect if only given the authority to do so, you're bound to be impatient at any obstacles that might prevent, or even slow, the achievement of that perfection.

That's why we don't see these pieces with Republicans in the White House. Conservatives are not utopians. They understand the limits of government power and government authority and don't want anyone ruling from Washington. And none of the details bother the liberal utopianists when there is a Republican in the White House. If a George Bush has his agenda obstructed by Democrats, that's not evidence of "ungovernability," it's just good work by the obstructors. Because a George Bush shouldn't be "governing" anyway - he's not a good person, not like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were, not like Barack Obama is.

1 - Rauch, Jonathan. (1994, September 30). Starve Lobbyists, Not Congress :[Op-Ed]. New York Times (Late Edition (east Coast)), p. A.31. Retrieved December 12, 2009, from Banking Information Source. (Document ID: 968311171).

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