Election pits civic duty against cynicism

Nov. 4, 2012

By Steven Greenhut

SACRAMENTO –- It’s been years since I cared deeply about any election, yet I find myself back to old habits — tracking polls and dealing with conflicting feelings that emerge this time of year. My sense of deep cynicism, born of years reporting on government venality and stupidity, collides with my sense of civic duty.

Few people can watch so many loathsome campaign ads without thinking that something is wrong with our system. Then again, we know the losers on Election Night will concede and go home without unleashing their militias on the streets, as happens in many other countries.

Things aren’t so bad.

I always hope that a leader will emerge to guide our country, state or locality to a better political future through less spending and more freedom-oriented policies. Then I get mad at myself for wanting a “leader.” We’re a self-governing people, and leaders always disappoint.

It’s foolish to have high hopes for politicians

“Evans Law,” named for conservative writer M. Stanton Evans, offers a reminder of why we shouldn’t put much faith in politicians: “When one of our people gets in a position where he can do us some good, he stops being one of our people.” I’ve seen council members, in essence, switch sides almost immediately after taking office. The few politicians who stick to their guns often end up being ineffective and ignored

No wonder. Journalist H.L. Mencken (pictured above) argued that “[g]overnment is a broker in pillage, and every election is a sort of advance auction in stolen goods.” It’s much easier being effective as a pillager than as someone who wants to halt the auction.

Yet, my loved ones can’t understand the roots of my cynicism.

My idealistic notion that Republicans might actually cut government died shortly into the first Reagan administration. There’s so much to cut. But all those programs have constituencies, and their workers are represented by unions, all of which have enough money to bury any politician perceived as a threat.

Between servicing the national debt, the defense budget and entitlements, the federal government already outspends its income.

The telling euphemisms we use for spending

In fact, those euphemisms hint at the problem: “servicing,” “defense” and “entitlements.” Few Americans get much service from paying for money that our government already squandered; much of our military budget is not defensive, and why should any of us feel entitled to a government paycheck?

I don’t believe Mitt Romney will fix anything, but it’s depressing to have a president, like the current one, who believes the answer to every question contains the same 10 letters: “government.”

Sometimes, I hope that this year’s fine Libertarian Party ticket (former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson and Orange County retired judge Jim Gray) serves as a spoiler in, say, Colorado. If they cost the GOP the election, maybe Republicans will start paying attention to freedom-oriented issues and not just freedom rhetoric. But no one would learn anything, and we’ll all be stuck with another four years with economic policies based on the notion that one can take water from the deep end of the pool, dump it in the shallow end (after spilling some of it on the sidewalk) and expect the water level to rise.

It is difficult to make clear points in elections. Individuals have complex motives and ill-formed worldviews. Good-government types often say we should vote for candidates with the best character. But it gets complicated. Some of the most dangerous legislators are honest ideologues who know exactly what they are doing as they regulate our lives. The cad, Bill Clinton (combined with a GOP Congress), seems to be as good as it gets at the national level; there’s another disturbing, election-related notion.

Cynical pols less scary than true believers

Sometimes the most shamelessly ambitious politicians are the most malleable ones, willing to do the “right” thing if the People put pressure on them. Mencken has it right: “The worst government is the most moral. One composed of cynics is often very tolerant and humane. But when fanatics are on top there is no limit to oppression.”

Having just finished a book about the puritanical and fanatical Khmer Rouge communists who created Cambodia’s “killing fields,” I see Mencken’s point.

Then I think of real reformers –- San Diego mayoral candidate Carl DeMaio, San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait -– and that civic sensibility rises again.

At the state level, it is ironic that conservatives have come to depend on creations of the Progressive-era –- the initiative, referendum and recall –- to control modern Progressive politicians, but such are the inconsistencies and ironies of the political system.

The big statewide initiative Tuesday is Proposition 30, Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed tax increase. My best advice: Starve the beast. California’s government outspends its revenue every year, during both economic booms and busts. The best hope for restoring some fiscal responsibility is to limit the cash politicians have to spend. Brown and Co. promise Draconian cuts to schools if you don’t yield to their political blackmail. It’s always best to call a politician’s bluff.

When options are bad, messages can’t be sent

And then there are those darn imperfect choices.

I’d love to see my district’s congressman, Republican Dan Lungren, booted from office; he long has advocated for civil-forfeiture measures that allow police agencies to take the cars, homes and other property of people, many of whom have never been convicted of crimes. It has led to countless abuses because it marries police powers with the profit motive.

But Lungren’s opponent is a left-wing Democrat who seems to get everything wrong and has not raised this issue. No matter who wins, no message will be sent, no deserved political punishment will be meted out. Oh, well.

I hope that if Romney wins the presidency, Americans will be reminded that wealth and the private-enterprise system are good things and should not be the objects of envy and scorn.

Then again, I don’t expect much. No matter Tuesday’s results, I console myself, again, with Mencken: “Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under.”

Steven Greenhut is vice president of journalism at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity; write to him at [email protected].

Related Articles

Capitol Security Conundrum

Having been recently mugged downtown, I carry pepper spray. Last week, I forgot I had it in my pocket, and

Prop. 33 promotes auto insurance discount

Oct. 18, 2012 By Dave Roberts Proposition 33 is either a common sense way to increase competition in the auto

Contra Costa supervisors paid twice for vehicle costs

Some members of the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors are facing sharp questions about their ethics and honesty over