At a recent dinner party, a Republican senator in the Wyoming legislature remarked that the most common personal call she receives from her constituents begins with, “I’m a Republican, but . . . ,” and ends with a request for some or another government benefit or service.

Americans are fond of complaining that their political “system” doesn’t “work.”  Their politicians never deliver what they want from that system.  They don’t “listen to” them, and, in any event, they don’t really represent them, the grassroots voters having never been given a real choice of candidates to begin with.

Because the American “system” has devolved in recent decades into a single perennial election season interrupted by periodic nationwide votes every two years, we are all of us more or less inured to these complaints, to the point of developing an auditory defense mechanism against them.  Still, the ongoing Republican primary battles have risen to so high a volume and such a shrillness of pitch that they can hardly be ignored by anyone, save the aurally challenged.  Charge after countercharge warns, asserts, shrieks that one faction within the GOP is about to be ignored, undersold, cheated, or disfranchised by another faction or factions, and that the lean, fit frontiersman struggling to escape from the bloated moneybags in the top hat and tails is being denied his chance to recreate the United States in the form of the virtuous, Christian, free and free-enterprise republic she was before 1861.

This is pure nonsense, of course, and dishonest and self-flattering nonsense at that.  The American public, which is all too accurately represented by its politicians, actually enjoys a pretty fair facsimile of the government it deserves.  Mencken wrote that the American people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.  It’s a good saying, but one perhaps better suited to the 1920’s than to any period since that time.  The truth is, Americans don’t know what they want, only that (like every woman) they want it all: cheap or free healthcare (including contraceptives), and lower taxes; generous Social Security benefits, and lower taxes; free higher education, and lower taxes; the most powerful military in the world and the flattering status of sole superpower, and lower taxes (also zero battlefield casualties); unequivocal military support for our only democratic ally in the Middle East, and no more wars; cheap money, and no inflation; free trade benefiting American exports, and tariffs to protect American workers; more industrial plants and energy development, and a more natural natural environment; cheap mortgages for expensive properties beyond one’s means, and no Wall Street banks to provide them; antidiscrimination policies in sexual matters, and the defense of “family values”; toleration of cohabitation and easy divorce, and less money for child and other forms of welfare—and so on.  A possible list of contradictories is virtually endless.  Modern Americans wish to have their politics both ways, and what sort of politician isn’t overeager to let them have it?  It is in his very nature, as a democratic politico, to try (or at least, to seem to try) to give the people what they say, or think, they want.  “You cannot indict a people,” said Burke, overlooking the fact that indicting a people is exactly what every prophet known to history has done.

Among the foremost issues in the most tedious political campaign in American history is what was formerly called the character issue, and is now known as the “values” question (which is the most faithful husband, most doting father, devout churchgoer, etc., among the various contenders for office).  Yet the connection between personal (mainly sexual) morality and responsible political performance, so far from being a proved one, in fact is nonexistent.  A cursory look at history shows that perhaps a majority of the governing nobility of Europe (known then as Christendom) over the past two millennia kept mistresses, had lovers, and otherwise indulged in dalliances with members of the opposite sex, without anyone supposing that the chances that they would have governed better and more wisely could have been improved had they been faithful to the Sixth and Ninth Commandments.  Perhaps the best example in this respect is Prince Klemens von Metternich, the Austrian diplomat whom Napoleon Bonaparte in exile credited with having destroyed him and whose statesmanship largely succeeded in keeping the European left at bay for nearly four decades.  Metternich, who fathered many children by three wives (the first two predeceased, the third survived him), had numerous affairs, several of his mistresses being among the most brilliant women of his time, with whom he later maintained intellectually serious and long-standing friendships.  It is depressing to reflect that this great man, by comparison with whom no American diplomat rates as anything more than a bureaucrat with a four-masted ship or a Boeing jet at his disposal, would be dismissed out of hand as a potential presidential candidate, owing to his inability to pass the sacrosanct “values” test.  So instead of an American Metternich (not to be conflated with a Kissinger), the Republicans will settle this summer for an uxorious Romney or Santorum as their choice to lead a nation more populous today than the whole of Europe was during the Prince’s lifetime.  Here again one finds evidence of the American voters’ determination to have it both ways.  Given a choice between, on the one hand, a brilliant, strong, and sophisticated man of the world with a weakness, like most men of his type, for amour and, on the other, a dull and ignorant but monogamous Babbitt known for organizing an international sports event or homeschooling his children, they would dither, moralize, and complain of not being offered a choice before voting for the “role model” a democratic middle-class country prefers to a genuine statesman.  Yet it would be political suicide for this pathetic Babbitt to campaign on a promise to outlaw divorce, adultery, extramarital sex, buggery, or contraception in the United States, assuming he had the moral imagination and the political courage even to think such heresy.

Americans’ insistence on moral perfection in their candidates, whether for the presidency or any other public office down to that of county clerk, reflects the divine status they attribute to liberal democracy generally, and liberal democracy in America in particular.  This assumption of divinity is a compound of sectarian religiosity (the Puritan’s imagined mission from God to found a City Upon a Hill) and ideological democratism, one result of which is Americans’ presumptuous, not to say naively heretical, belief that America is God’s Country, divinely entrusted with the task of creating heaven on earth in North America and spreading it over the rest of the world—the Republicans’ ultimate Big Tent.  Indeed, a great deal of the confusion and contradiction in American politics is explainable by Americans’ half-unconscious conviction that the United States really is omnipotent—fully competent to fulfill all their conflicting desires and reconcile their contradictory attitudes, if only the government were to set its mind to the task.  Americans want big government; and they want smaller government.  They want the benefits of big government; and they do not want either the expenses it entails or the surrender of democratic power required to realize it.  Depending on which politician they are listening to, and what he is saying to them, they are either agin government altogether, or they are all for it.  What a dilemma for a democratic politician—then again, what a blessing, what an unparalleled boon and advantage!  Depending on the particular audience he is addressing, the speech’s venue, timing, and mood, he can speak out of one side of his mouth or the other, and win every time, with somebody.  He doesn’t have to fool all of the people all of the time, or even some of the people some of the time, because the people are split minded, don’t know what they really think, and haven’t made their minds up on anything.  If he catches them in a mood agreeable to his purpose, he can say A while denying B, and the crowd will be gratified to hear that he who says A need not say B after all!  It is a demagogue’s dream and a servile people’s heaven—but it is the demagogue who ends up ahead and on top, every time.

The grousing, complaining American electorate has it all wrong.  The problem is not the political “system,” whatever that really is.  The problem is contemporary social reality in the United States, and beneath that the mental and emotional reality—the intellectual and political incompetency—of the average American citizen.  Democracy, if it is designed for human nature at all, is not designed for children, and children are what the American public is progressively becoming.  It has something to do with liberalism, of course.  A recent scholar has speculated on the pleasant possibility of modern Christianity without liberalism.  A further question is whether democracy is possible without liberalism.  (The answer is suggested by the fact that Grecian democracy was precisely that—illiberal democracy—and failed anyway.)  Liberalism, which is grounded in the notion of the natural dignity of every human being, is fatally prone to destroying the sense of that dignity by its denial of any authority higher than the human one.  Children have no sense of dignity, and, indeed, one might say that adults without a proper sense of their own dignity (a dignity inspired by either a natural or a supernatural understanding of themselves) are simply children suffering from the condition of gigantism.  But even children learn to recognize limits to desire and gratification, and to reconcile themselves to the fact that one should not expect to receive something for nothing.  It is wonderful how raising the most basic moral reality to an abstract level like politics succeeds in abolishing any sense of it whatever.

Working my shift at a major metropolitan institution the other day, I was struck once again, as I so often am, by the appalling appearance of the new American public: an ungodly combination of infantilism and brutality, narcissism and slovenliness, seductiveness and aggressive physical repulsion, an utter lack of taste—all of it compounded by bad grammar, lewd language, and worse manners, resulting, more often than not, from an anti-social self-unawareness and a lack of tact and consideration for other people.  These are the creatures whose innate dignity our democratic “system” is supposed to embody and to honor.  By my estimate, not more than five percent of the American public, if that much, has any cause to be thinking about politics at all.