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Sound & fury, signifying pandering

| Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2011

What is democratic government?

The question seems simple, but the number of answers to it is large, and these answers vary greatly.

For some people, democratic government is the embodiment of The People. Government is the great and faithful agent of Us, of Our, of We. The very fact that We all vote (or have the opportunity to vote) means that We control what Our government does. Government is Us acting collectively.

Anyone who objects to what Our government does objects to what We do as a People.

Sure, We never agree unanimously on what government ought to do, but this lack of unanimity is a mere detail that doesn't blemish the larger, glorious picture of Us acting collectively, "as a nation."

Government, in this widespread view, reflects the will of We the People. I call adherents of this view of government the "Government R Us" crowd.

Alas, in practice, even the most ardent believers in Government R Us are schizophrenic on the matter. Whenever government pursues some policy disagreeable to the Government R Us crowd, they accuse government of doing the bidding not of Us, but rather, of Them -- of this or that evil lobby.

For example, "progressive" Government-R-Us-ers believe in their bones that Social Security, Medicare and other welfare-state programs reflect the unalloyed Will of the People.

Progressives believe also that Congress' consistent refusal to trim these programs in any significant ways testifies that We, as a Nation, have chosen that We will steadfastly use these programs to support each other in illness and old age.

Opponents of these programs are portrayed either as undemocratic miscreants who wish to thwart The People's will or as mindless ideologues who refuse to believe that The People actually choose to live in a welfare state.

In contrast, progressive Government-R-Us-ers regard Congress' failure to enact more aggressive gun-control legislation as reflecting not the will of The People, but the will of the National Rifle Association.

These Government-R-Us-ers offer no explanation for why We the People manage to keep government behaving as our faithful agent in some situations (say, "protecting" Social Security) but are utterly and stubbornly betrayed by this same agent in other situations (say, gun control).

Nor do Government-R-Us-ers explain how to distinguish government actions that actually reflect the will of The People from government actions that violate that will.

This Government-R-Us theory is far too shaky to take seriously. So I offer an alternative answer to the question, "What is democratic government?"

My answer is: theater.

From the president down to midlevel staffers in Uncle Sam's sprawling bureaucracies, each and every government official is acting.

Each senator is aware that he'll be judged largely by the quality of the words he speaks publicly. Each House member knows that she is performing for an audience.

The president, of course, is less an executor of the legislature's statutes than he is the starring attraction in the ongoing 24/7 tragicomedy known as "American Government."

With exceptions too few to matter, the chief goal of each and every one of these officials is to convince the audience that he or she "cares" about us -- that he or she feels our pain -- that he or she routinely sacrifices for the good of America, possesses insights denied to less-exalted people and -- if only the other party would stop being so blasted obstructionist -- will perform wonderful feats that no one else can perform.

Each elected official senses that large numbers of Americans believe that Uncle Sam can work miracles that mere humans cannot. So each official puts on an act designed to enchant voters into believing that he or she is especially able and eager to elicit such miracles from government.

Of course, in reality, government generates not miracles, but hosts of undesirable consequences that were no part of anyone's script or screenplay.

These consequences are unintended in the sense that almost no one bothers to think about the likelihood that they'll occur.

If enough of the general public is enchanted by politicians' claims that proposed regulation A will result in marvelous outcome X, the audience will reward the scriptwriters and actors who produce A with an extended stay in the theater. This public applause for regulation A is sufficient motivation for politicians to support regulation A.

That regulation A might not actually achieve outcome X -- or the real chance that regulation A will unleash a torrent of mischief that the audience doesn't anticipate -- is of no moment to the performers.

If the audience applauds the actions and words taking place in the spotlight, the actors continue the performance, unconcerned about the future scenes.

Applause today, as loud as possible: that's pretty much all that matters to the thespians we call "government officials."

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