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How to Arrest a Spiral of Cynicism

By Elvin Lim

For the third election in a row, voters will be throwing incumbents out of office. In 2006, the national wave against Bush and the Bush wars gave Democrats control of both houses of Congress. In 2008, the same wave swept Obama into the White House. In 2010, incumbents are yet again in trouble. At least some of them will be expelled from Washington, and if so, the vicious cycle of perpetual personnel turnover and ensuing cynicism in Washington will continue. This is what happens when we become a government of men.

We need only look to the last anti-incumbent election, 2008, for lessons. The Republicans and the Tea Party Movement are running the risk of doing what Barack Obama did in 2008. They are promising change in the campaign, but they do not realize how difficult, by design, change is in Washington. But politicians aren’t usually in the habit of thinking about the election after the one right before them.

Should Republicans take over the House in 2011, they will quickly learn, as Obama has learned, that change does not come via elections in American politics. Elections only change the publicly visible personnel at the top; at best they open the door to potential change. The permanent government persists, the political parties survive, the interests endure. Most important, the constitution and its precise method for law-making remains. The political candidate who promises wholesale change makes a promise that cannot usually be delivered in a few years, and s/he runs the risk of becoming the victim of a new political outsider, a Beowulf who will promise to slay Grendel, but who shall soon find out that with Grendel dead, a dragon still remains to be slayed.

Watch the triumphant Republicans who sweep into office in January 2011. They will be filled with as much hubris as Obama was. Fresh from the winds of the campaign trail, they will think the world their oyster. How could they feel otherwise? The applause and rallies which flatter every politician confirm in their own minds that they are kings and celebrities, the invincible crusaders swept in by a tide of popular love.

Then government begins. And boy did the tough job of governing begin in 2009, Obama might now recall. When the tough sail of real governing fails to catch wind the way a campaign slogan did in the year before, a politician stands humbled. Befuddled, to be sure, but ultimately humbled. Worse still, a people sit dismayed. Tricked again, we withdraw into our private lives. Disgusted at government, resentful that we allowed our hopes to go up, furious that we believed the boy who cried wolf thrice. All signs point to this happening again in 2011, especially if there is divided party control of government and the Constitution is activated to do what it does best: check and balance, and thereby ensure gridlock. Then the cycle begins anew. With both sides disillusioned, the question will then become, which side will be less disillusioned to believe in a new anti-incumbent politician who shall cry wolf a fourth time?

This is a vicious cycle, and the only way to stop it is for every citizen to take a civic lesson or two in American government. Our Founders believed only in incremental change, in hard choices, in the give-and-take of inter-branch negotiation. The system of checks and balances was biased against seismic chances by design. No one, and certainly no branch monopolizes the truth, and no truth can be told ahead of time (i.e. as they are in campaigns) until all branches agree. Despite the message of the get-the-vote-out armies of either party, there are no messiahs, no crusaders in the system the Founders invented. The heroes we have constructed in modern campaigns are just demagogues exploiting the impatience of the frightened or the unemployed. There are no quick and easy solutions, and politicians know it, but they only want our votes for right now, so the truth doesn’t matter.

So by all means throw the bums out. But remember that whoever we replace them with will turn out to be bums too if we expect that they will swiftly enact pre-conceived answers consonant with our own, and forget that populist haste is exactly what the constitution was designed to thwart. Politicians come and go, institutions do not. If we understand that our hopes can and will be dashed by men, we might just restore our faith in government.

Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. Read Lim’s previous OUPblogs here.

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