"The polls" have it that Americans in 2014 expect virtually nothing from the 2014 style in Washington politicians.
Amid the horrors we trip over every morning when evacuating our beds, this revelation may count as very, very, very good news.
We don't want to expect much from our politicians, of whatever sex, party, creed, and persuasion. A major roadblock to achievement of the earnest hopes of the past half dozen years—the Obama years—is ... well, those same earnest hopes. My brothers, my sisters, it wasn't ever going to happen that a smooth-tongued office seeker was going to set America right—or whatever it was we supposed he would do, once duly inducted as orator-in-chief.
Aristotle may have thought politics a worthy tool for inculcating virtue, etc., but that was another place, another time, a world of more limited aspirations than the generalized hope for life without pain, inconvenience and undue suffering, marked by ethnic reconciliation, enduring peace and steady increases in the minimum wage.
A large, diverse republic—ours—simply isn't going to come together on any but the most generalized goals; say, a 3 or 4 percent unemployment rate and low inflation, with affordable gasoline pump prices. Governmental attempts to smooth out economic cycles, reconcile different races and define proper belief and behavior aren't going anywhere.
But the government makes such attempts anyhow. That's because the political apparatus—a well-paying, prestige-endowing enterprise—pays and praises men and women who promise to do the impossible.
The strength of any peaceable, prosperous, self-sustaining society lies in the character of its people—not in laws that, at their best and wisest, reflect that character. Character comes first—duty, responsibility, temperance, seriousness; internal checks against tendencies to go too far or not far enough.
Political men and women aren't—I mean, these days they aren't; I'm not putting down Cicero and Edmund Burke and even Cal Coolidge—the most important teachers of the most important things in life. Political men and women are entrepreneurs, looking for products to sell, new ways of selling those products, new benefits to tout and new dangers to expose and warn against as they volunteer to fix everything for us.
This can sound cynical. There are "benefits"—personal freedom is among the foremost—that deserve touting; there are dangers for certain in a world of busy ideologies, each clamoring for converts and attention. Dangers all the same arise from by-now-inveterate habits of thinking politicians can fix everything in need of fixing.
So. Of the entrepreneurs contending for our favor, to whom is that favor best parceled out? I would say it belongs to the evidently small number who understand that matters of character matter most. Before you have a government that does right and sensible things, you need an electorate that wants a government capable of doing right and sensible things: such as respecting and rewarding hard work and initiative, appreciating the value of freedom over nitpicking nannyism, looking to long-term rather than short-term, let's-just-get-through-the-next-election consequences when it comes to action.
What citizens see as vital to their aspirations should matter more than the biennial imaginings of people who wouldn't have jobs, absent the ability to dream up enticements known as platforms.
Character, alas, lacks an appreciative audience. It implies duty; it implies self-restraint; it can require sacrifice. Now where are you going to find support for such stuff, our great teaching institutions having gone weak at the knees?
The schools arbitrated character questions before "tolerance" superseded standards of right and wrong. Churches, when the spiritual counted at least as much as the political, carried the notion of personal rectitude to altitudes abandoned in the New Morality age. The New Morality age more or less favors letting the people formerly known as citizens make up the rules as they go. The family—once the basic instructional unit—is, to modern politicians, a synonym for how particular people want to bunk with other people.
That leaves modern politicians to solve our problems. Wow! We sure see how that's going!
William Murchison's latest book is The Cost of Liberty: The Life of John Dickinson. To find out more about William Murchison, and to see features by other Creators Syndicate columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.Creators.com.
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William Murchison is a corresponding editor of Chronicles and the author of The Cost of Liberty: The Life of John Dickinson (ISI) and Mortal Follies: Episcopalians and the Crisis of Mainline Christianity. William Murchison, syndicated columnist and longtime commentator on religious, cultural, and political affairs, has contributed to many national publications, including the Wall Street Journal, National Review, The Weekly Standard, and First Things.