America, as we’ve commented before here many times, is unique in being a country based on an idea, and that idea was most famously expressed by Abe Lincoln as ‘government by the people and for the people’. It was to secure that that ideal did not perish that the Civil War was fought, and it has been in its defence that the USA became the defender of the free world. Despite George Washington’s farewell address, post world war II America discovered that if it did not go abroad to slay them, the dragons might well get to place from which they could do it serious harm.
That huge effort, entailed real dangers for the nature of the US political system. As Commander in Chief, the office of the President assumed greater important in time of war, POTUS had to be more than just first among equals, but with that came the trappings of what came to be called the ‘imperial presidency. A huge defence budget created what Ike called ‘the military-industrial complex’ which, in many ways, was the opposite of government by the people and for the people; it was government on behalf of the defence of the people, which carried with it the real risk of depriving the people of some of its freedoms in order to defend others.
Allied to that danger was another which is inherent in all democracies – that of the debauching of electoral politics by pork-barrelling. At its least harmful (which is still harmful) this was a matter of Congressional districts getting something in return for the way a Congressman voted; at its worst it becomes systematic bribery in which politicians promise to tax one group for the benefit of the other – what ion other walks of life we’d call robbing Peter to pay Paul; as long as Pauls outnumber Peter, you win: the problems tend to kick in when you run out of Peter’s money – which always happens.
We like to think that politics is the pursuit of the national interest, but how is that defined and who defines it? On the level of war and peace you can do it with a pretty broad consensus – not many want the USA to be conquered or weakened (though some seem unable to see these things might follow from their preferences), but when it comes to domestic politics, interests are harder to define. Some will not want big government, others might if they get told it is going to look after all their needs, and some would reject it even with that bribe because they don’t believe that in this life you get something for nothing.
Political decision makers reflect a variety of assumptions, some stemming from their own education and social and political biases, others from what they suppose the public wants, or can be persuaded to votes for. The temptation to cultivate popular prejudices for political gain is so hard to resist and so prevalent that one might doubt some politicians even know they are doing just that half the time. We all want politicians to be decent, honest and truthful, but as electors, we tend to reward them when they are not. Civic virtue rests with ‘we the people’ and if we won’t exercise it, then I guess we can’t expect our politicians to do so either.
You can correct me here, but I think Harry S Truman was the last POTUS to leave office without being a very rich man (query Gerald Ford here?). It’s true some of them were rich before they were President, but as the career of Bill Clinton has shown (and Obama’s will show) you can make a pot of cash after the Presidency. In such a world, money becomes the touchstone, and in that world, where cash is king, civic virtue tends to leak away.
It was Churchill who popularised the saying that democracy is the worst form of government – except for all of the others. He was, as so often, right, but if we don’t insist on a straight and clean politics, then we’ll get what we have. It is this feeling of disenchantment which fuels the cynicism that is such a threat to our democracy.