Mitt’s biggest challenge, apart from what George Will identified as his inveterate “Romneyness,” is countering Obama’s sly, Alinskyite mastery of the levers of power. In 2008, Obama campaigned as a political outsider, someone who would challenge the system and shake up an entrenched bureaucracy. What was not sufficiently understood was the extent to which that whole narrative was a deliberate ruse, promulgated by a politically radical machine in order to usurp power. That, in fact, is Obama’s one real area of mastery: the “long march through the institutions” in which the democratic dispersal of power is replaced with a top-down, commissar-style of governing. What he has managed to accomplish in this regard in a mere three years is remarkable.
And that brings me to the title of this column. I take it from an essay by the pollster Scott Rasmussen, linked on the page reporting Romney’s surge in the polls.
Republicans, as Rasmussen notes, are often heard grumbling about the “entitlement mentality.” I sing in that chorus myself. Usually, the song dilates on the growing habit of dependency and appetite for, as Rasmussen puts it, “goodies provided by the government and financed by taxpayers.” (Herewith a plug for Charles Sykes’s new book A Nation of Moochers: America’s Addiction to Getting Something for Nothing.)
It would be hard to overestimate that aspect of the problem. It is a corollary of that “psychological change” in a people that Friedrich von Hayek diagnosed in The Road to Serfdom: a transformation from the practice of autonomy and self-reliance to the habit of dependency. It was, Hayek noted, both a regular result and precondition of “extensive government control.” Cause and effect fed upon and abetted each other. It was (as Hayek also noted) a textbook case of what Tocqueville described in his famous paragraphs on “democratic despotism.” How would despotism come to a modern democracy? Tocqueville asked. Not through the imposition of old-fashioned tyranny. No, that instrument is too blunt, too crude for modern democratic regimes. Much more effective is the disguised tyranny of infantilization. Turn government into the sole provider of all those “goodies” and you enslave the population far more effectively than an old-style tyranny ever managed.
All this is true, and it deserves our constant attention. But Scott Rasmussen shifts his focus to the other side of the equation, one which I tried to adumbrate last week in my column “Wards and Warders.” In order to work, the dependency agenda needs not only to cultivate the sheep, a population of dependents. It also needs to foster a population of controlling bureaucrats, the shepherds or warders of the system. And this brings us to what Rasmussen calls “the real entitlement mentality that threatens to bankrupt the nation: A political class that feels entitled to rule over the rest of us.”
Let’s pause over that observation: “real entitlement mentality” revolves around “a political class that feels entitled to rule over the rest of us.”
As Rasmussen notes, this mentality is not solely a Democratic or a Republican trait. It affects — or infects — “the nation’s political leaders of both parties.” Hence the intractability of the problem. It’s not just our habits of dependency that need to be broken. The habits of control and penchant for feeding dependency on the part of our political leaders also need to be curbed. Rasmussen is right: “While most voters view excessive government spending as the problem, those who feel entitled to rule over the rest of us see the voters as the problem. And that’s the real entitlement crisis facing the nation today. The political class wants to govern like it’s 1775, a time when kings were kings and consent of the governed didn’t matter.”
Our job is to remind them, as vividly as possible, that it matters quite a lot. Tea party, anyone?