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Works and Days

Our Ongoing Catharsis

August 15th, 2009 - 8:23 am

Presidential Popularity

After just eight months, the President is at a 50/50 cross-roads in the polls. The once hope-and-change exuberance has dissipated. Such unpopularity is hardly new; what is novel is the rapidity in which a 70%+ approval rating has plummeted to 50%.

What’s Next?

The result is that Obama is increasingly at the mercy of events, rather than directing them himself. If the economy rebounds quickly, if his supporters vastly water down his cap-and-trade and health care initiatives and call such nuancing success, if energy prices stay depressed, if his administration stops the racial hectoring, if Michelle, Biden, and others are advised to smile rather than to speak, then Obama may, like Clinton in 1995, recover.

But if a recovery morphs into Carter-like stagflation with high unemployment, interest, and inflation, coupled with low growth, if Obama insists on a blood-on-the-floor flight for socialized medicine and radical energy taxes, if we get more “cowards” and “stupidly” editorializing, if Michelle gets angry and emerges with more “this is a downright mean country” sermonizing, if Biden starts talking his astrology, then we could witness a Carter or Bush meltdown in the polls—but in year one rather than four or five.

What Happened?

The public was mad at Bush for deficit spending, and yet Obama baited-and-switched and gave them much more of it. Americans perhaps were tired of “smoke ‘em out” and “bring it on” machismo, and then got off-the-teleprompter incoherence of the ‘inflate your tires’ type. Voters wanted Martin Luther King, Jr., and are hearing more an Al Sharpton. Wall Street greed continues, but the remedy for its excess instead falls on our family doctor, real estate broker, and accountant, and all the others who are demonized for making over $250,000 a year. Some believed Nancy Pelosi & Co. were genuine supporters of protest, and critics of government privilege—and only now learned that it was only liberal protest and Republican privilege she and her cohort praised and slurred. We wanted kinder, gentler servants, and instead got a Hillary snapping and gnashing in the Congo, Timothy Geithner swearing in profanity-laced diatribes at bank regulators, and Biden’s lunacy.

Quiet Before the Storm?

The more I talk to Americans, the more they seem to me increasingly apprehensive about the growing deficits. They are exasperated that the talk of all these new taxes won’t translate into balanced budgets, but into gargantuan new debts. More and more get the impression that the more we are to pay for taxes and the more entitlements are to expand, the more both are owed rather than appreciated. The more we say we are sorry abroad, the more a Chavez, Kim Jong Il, or Ahmadinejad may well confuse contrition for timidity and so try to readjust the regional order—as a warm-up for something really serious from Russia or China.

A Necessary Catharsis

If one reads the early plays of Aristophanes, Aristotle’s Politics, or later political observers like Tocqueville, then one appreciates that in a democracy there is always a certain tendency for ochlocracy. Popular demagoguery ensures that the better off are pilloried, and the public votes itself largess that it simply does not have. Indeed, in the ancient world, it is largely accepted that while democracy in name means power of the people in the sense of majority rule, it so often translates into the power of the poorer classes.

The corrective is for a conservative minority to win over a majority by appeals to reason and moderation, to stifle public appetites, to honor traditional values, to remind us all of the tragic limitations inherent in the human experience.

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