Saturday, February 28, 2009

Politics without Ideas

An opinion piece in last week’s Wall Street Journal illustrates why one can’t seek to make significant or lasting change by simply targeting the political level. Politics is a reflection of the electorate (more and more so as we slide towards mob-rule democracy) and thus any attempt to bypass them and their ideas is futile.

As the story, which focuses on California’s woes, notes:
Six years ago, Mr. Schwarzenegger arrived in Sacramento to "cut up the credit card" and give the girlie men at the State Capitol a testosterone shot. California languished then in a fiscal crisis whose causes were pretty much the same as today. The hapless Gray Davis had been recalled, and the Austrian-born actor made a promising start to break the pattern.

In 2005, banking on his popularity, the governor pushed an ambitious ballot initiative to impose a hard state spending cap, limit the unions' political buying power, tighten requirements for teacher tenure, and overhaul a gerrymandered state political map. Arnold lost.
In essence, the electorate wanted tax cuts, but not spending cuts. And for decades, our voters have been taught that their civic duty consists in voting. Never mind having a consistent, non-contradictory set of principles which you uphold and work to institute — simply voting is deemed good enough.

And then when politicians can’t make this fantasy approach work, somehow it’s their fault. (Now don’t get me wrong, politicians often manage to distill the worst aspects of the people they govern, but in today’s world there is simply no way that a reasonable person could get elected. And this is the fault of the electorate at large.)

Why do the people believe that holding any hodge-podge set of ideas is enough? Because that’s what they’ve been taught in our educational institutions and that’s what they hear everyday on the news and in the media. And the teachers and pundits, in turn, have learned it from our cultural leaders, the so-called “intellectuals” who tell us that there is no firm reality, no ideas that are better or worse than others, that every side and every view is equally valid, etc.

Thus to change the political climate means changing the intellectual one — there can be no good political scene absent a culture animated by good ideas. Or to put it another way, trying to circumvent the causal chain of ideas is impossible (and therefore impractical).

This isn’t to say that one must target the intellectual leaders exclusively. For any person who becomes better educated will ask better questions and demand more from the media and the intellectuals, which places upward pressure on the chain. But fundamentally we need better ideas before we can expect better government.

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