A QUESTION OF BALANCE
Since the 1994 congressional elections, America's central political debate has pitted "big government" against "small government." This is a sterile dichotomy that captures the concerns of few citizens. Americans abhor paying taxes and are constitutionally incapable of favoring "big government" in the abstract. Nevertheless, I suspect that voters want more government, not less, in certain key areas -- crime prevention, environmental preservation, job security, and education, to name just a few. Naturally, they want less government elsewhere.
The real source of the current estrangement between Americans and their politicians is, I believe, the feeling that the process of governing has become too political. Americans increasingly believe that their elected officials are playing games rather than solving problems. Political debate has too much "spin" and too little straight talk. The system is too argumentative and tied up in partisan and procedural knots. Most important, government appears excessively beholden to those with political clout, often at the expense of the public interest.
In return for these perceived vices, citizens exact retribution from professional politicians: witness the romanticized yearning for a man on a white horse (first Ross Perot, then Colin Powell), the meteoric rise and fall of the anti-politician Steve Forbes, and the growing pressure for term limits. Each of these rejectionist phenomena is a Bronx cheer for career politicians.
So what is the solution? Policy without politics? Of course not. But "politicalness" is not something that must be turned on or off like a light switch; it can come in shades, more like a rheostat. We could be having a different debate. It would not be about the scale of government, but about the scope of politics; not about whether government is too "big" or too "small" in some abstract sense, but about what things the government should and should not be doing. And it would be about how political the government's various decisions should be.
Although important, this last question is rarely mentioned. My contention is that one root cause of Americans' current distaste for government is that our system is too political. Short-term electoral considerations and political gamesmanship have fueled much voter resentment. Fortunately, we can do something about it...
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