Sunday, June 1, 2008

In July 1813, John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson, "So many Subjects crowd upon me that I know not, with which to begin." And so I think it is with us.

This is an election year and the historic length of the campaign, the candidates and the ongoing 'drama' have fueled an unprecedented interest in politics that touch on every dimension of our lives. There are any number of subjects that could be addressed. There are, indeed, any number of subjects that should be addressed and in a manner less fitted to 2 minute debate banter and highly polished campaign posts.

So many subjects crowd upon us but let me start not with the details, the proposals, the political gamesmanship (because they will have their time), rather let me begin with the concept of selfishness.

It begins the other day with one of those ubiquitous emails passed through the hands of cyberspace. This one was sent to me from an office colleague and the subject line read: 545 People. In the email someone had copied over the words of a short essay by Charley Reese. Mr. Reese went about explaining how the whole of the United States government is run by 545 people (435 Congressmen, 9 Supreme Court Justices and 1 President) and that they and they alone are responsible for whatever mess we now find ourselves. It's all agreeable enough and the fanfare for his words can be easily seen with a quick search for his article online, but added to my email and not included in the original was a last line encouraging us to vote them all out of office. Oddly enough, we never actually do that and the reason comes from another, more recent piece of writing.

Last Thursday, Victor David Hanson, wrote an article for called All About Me. In it he assesses how the baby boom generation has taken to solving problems. They want it both ways - more oil without more drilling, affordable housing that always appreciates rapidly in price, generous Social Security with lower taxes. He concludes with the following:

Our present problems were not really caused by an unpopular president, a spendthrift Congress, the neocon bogeymen, the greedy Saudis, shifty bankers or corporate oilmen in black hats and handlebar moustaches -- much less the anonymous "they."

The fault of this age, dear baby boomers, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.

Therein lies our problem. Reese and Hanson are both correct. There are 545 people running the government, but there are millions of people voting for them. We keep buying what they keep selling.

A politician in office has no incentive to fix the country's problems. A Democratic Congress with a Republican President won't vote for a health care proposal because they need the promise of a health care proposal for campaign mailers. A Republican Congress with a Democratic President won't vote for a gay marriage amendment because they need the promise of a gay marriage amendment for television commercials. A large number of people make a great deal of money by fighting the good fight without any end results.

Meanwhile, the American people have no stomach for sacrifice. Congress may have abysmal favorability ratings, but individual Congressman have sky high numbers. As long as the pork barrel projects and federal money keep coming back to the home district the votes keep coming in. The voters lament the rising deficit, the weakening dollar, the rocketing fuel prices and the myriad scandals, but as long as someone is bringing home the bacon they keep voting in the same old purveyors of pork. We rarely ask ourselves, "Is it good for the country?" In the booth, alone and unpestered, we ask ourselves, "What's this guy going to do for me?"

Congress and Presidents want to keep their jobs. Voters want everything that helps themselves and doesn't hurt them. We are selfish creatures. The men that created this country understood that and were fearful of the whims of the masses. Unfortunately, time has eroded the protection of checks and balances that they envisioned, not because the system is failing us, but because we are failing ourselves.

There is so little thoughtfulness because thoughtfulness takes time and effort. There is so little of substance because substance takes time and isn't nearly as entertaining as the latest minute long video on YouTube. We have created a world of slogans and branding. We think of Democrats and Republicans as if they were Cadillac and Lincoln and how cool, intelligent and rich we are is evident by the party listed on our registration card.

Are we Democrats because we believe in the Democrat's solutions or because all our friends are Democrats? Are we Republicans because we believe in the Republican's solutions or because our parents were Republicans? More importantly, do we profess to believe in whatever talking points the party has put up on their website because we simply don't have the time or interest or thoughtfulness to have our own ideas. Have we become so enamored with our own thoughts and so distrustful of our own thinking that we cannot tolerate listening to anything that doesn't already agree with us?

I hope we have not. I hope that the two of us are not alone in thinking that there is a time, place and necessity to say what we think and not what the party brand requires, the voters desire and the world will little care about in a couple years. The government is more than 545 people and the solutions to all of our problems throughout the history of this country have involved sacrifice and something more than simple self interest.

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