The man best qualified to run the House of Representatives (I think so, anyway) won the votes necessary to run the House of Representatives—to the extent that any man or woman of like qualifications can be said to “run” a political enterprise at odds with the understanding of its creators and shapers.
The same could be said with respect to the Senate. I will come back to that point—after duly celebrating the elevation of Paul Ryan to the House speakership, following an outstandingly rough patch for the body known as “the people’s House.”
Ryan, as smart and able and mature a tribune of “the people” as you would ever wish to see wielding the speaker’s gavel, gave a smart and able and honest speech as he assumed the speakership just before Halloween. “The House is broken,” he said. “We are not solving problems. We are adding to them.”
We’d all agree on that, wouldn’t we? It’s not working. Politics isn’t working at the national level. Nobody outside the confines of your favorite institution for the mentally and emotionally challenged suggests otherwise.
The Ryan speakership is a response to the general perception of decay and dereliction on Capitol Hill. Mr. Trump and his patented yahooism are part of that response: no more than a tangentially serious part, I have to add, in that nobody on right or left or in between can predict in a granular sense how Trump would actually behave himself once ensconced at the White House. Likely, he himself doesn’t have any well-formed idea.
Let that go. I mention Trump mainly in order to suggest how loose our standards for performance have grown at a time when mediocre performance on the political stage is taken for granted. We don’t expect much any more, do we? I mean seriously expect much—as contrasted with the style of expectation generated at Freedom Caucus gatherings, the style of we’ll-bring-our-fist-down-on-the-table-and-they’ll-listen-to-us! Demand and outcome are different realities in life: rarely so different as in Washington, D.C., c. 2016.
In a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, notable for intelligence and the broad view of things, Christopher DeMuth, distinguished fellow at the Hudson Institute and former president of the American Enterprise Institute, taxonomized last fall the elements of congressional disorder. He blames “deep changes in the incentive structure of American politics”—changes that “have transformed everything.” What we have today, he argues, is “atomized politics . . . entrepreneurial on the supply side and issue-specific on the demand side. It is structured around the network affinity group,” whether linked by general principle or by “discrete issues and causes.”
The new style, says DeMuth, “has transformed Congress. Single-member activism has replaced the committee hierarchies and autocratic chairmen of times past.” Members “advance their careers by demonstrating fidelity to the principles of general affinity groups,” which in turn closely monitor the members. What have you done for me lately?—that sort of thing. Perversely, this Congress of “solo practitioners,” self-limited as to ends and means, bucks authority to the executive branch, whose current occupant, as he was happy enough to remind us, has a pen and a phone. And also—the occupant might have added—the benefit of a public trust that somehow still fills the corners and keyholes of the presidential office. Whence such trust? From inheritance: from memories of an earlier breed of president, for whom trust was a two-way street, leading from people to White House and back again.
Most of the commentary, DeMuth’s aside, having to do with congressional folly and malpractice focuses on individuals as well as individual policies—this guy or that guy finking out, refusing to take a stand, or anyway the appropriate stand, on vital issues. Former Speaker John Boehner—one of Congress’s abler and more dignified members, in my book—took devastating flak from the Freedom Caucus for alleged unwillingness to address deficit spending and the iniquities of ObamaCare. In the end he found himself wedged between Freedom Caucus conservatives demanding action now and a White House operation determined on never. That position being untenable, Boehner left the speakership, and Congress with it. Comes now Paul Ryan and the chance, as the new speaker puts it, “to return to regular order”—as “a matter of principle.” “What a relief it would be” to ordinary hard-working Americans, said Ryan, following his election,
if we actually fixed the tax code, put patients in charge of their health care, grew our economy, strengthened our military, lifted people out of poverty, and paid down the debt. At this point, nothing could be more inspiring than a job well done. Nothing could stir the heart more than real, concrete results.
Yes, right. And may the speaker flourish in the endeavor that has been thrust upon him, in spite of his preference for solving fiscal and like problems through chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee.
I suggest, nonetheless, that we look at Ryan’s task in the larger context that too often lies outside the spectrum of paid political analysis. How come? in other words. How come this mess in the first place—American government on the road to political fragmentation of the sort described accurately enough by Christopher DeMuth; government in the hands of a President characterized most conspicuously by his self-esteem and sense of entitlement; a government failing, or falling short, in many of its basic undertakings; unable most of the time, in spite of everything, to get its act together; casually kicking problems—e.g., the parlous state of Social Security—down the road where lie so many problems already, like empty beer cans? You sure you still want this job, Mr. Ryan?
The basic problem with American government, contrary to most impressions, isn’t American government. It’s Americans.
That sounds cruelly pat and cynical. Permit me to elaborate. I begin by noting that democracy, though not precisely a delicate bloom, needs continual cultivating and sometimes pruning. It depends on the character of the demos—the people. A certain kind of demos will nurture a certain kind of government; another, another. The founders were acquainted with the lay of the land, through the intensive study of human experience. Why did they cite the Greeks and the Romans? Because they were exemplars of what worked and what didn’t quite play out as expected. The founders knew a thing or two, moreover, about that matchless account of how things fall apart when you’re not paying attention—namely, the Old Testament, with its grapplings for advantage: people against prophets, prophets against kings, kings against each other, the Lord of Hosts weighing and considering the direction His oversight should take.
The aborning government of the United States of America was designed to play off forces and interests against one another, in recognition of the human appetite for power. “What is government itself,” Madison inquired, in the famous Federalist 51, “but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?” The two houses of Congress were instruments of balance. Balance would even out extremes. The House of Representatives—the focus of our present discussion—was designed with the people in view, feeding their ideas and notions into the deliberative process. The Senate was a platform or two higher in the political atmosphere, with a more commanding viewpoint. The House, more than the Senate, depends on the sensible relationships that congressmen cultivate—or can when they unplug their ears—to local and individual concerns. The more intelligent the concern, the more intelligent the means of dealing with it, and effecting change or preservation.
What Christopher DeMuth refers to as atomization in politics is the consequence of cultural atomization—the disappearance of boundaries and guideposts in voter relationships as Americans assume an entitlement to satisfactions of every kind. Not so many years ago, economic satisfactions, such as higher pay and better working conditions, were at the top of the list. Cultural satisfactions, as a goal, have been around forever, of course, but never so prominently, in American life, as in the past half century. What we want, we want, and then some: latitude in personal “lifestyles”; the freedom to speak in any tone or terms; ease above some measure of rigor; personal choice in the most intimate cases and situations. From these stipulations follow rights and claims to privileges not previously contemplated—abortion, same-sex marriage. It’s all about me, darling—wonderful me. What better president for such an age than Barack Obama—whose cultural predecessor in the office was Bill Clinton, of stained-dress fame.
It’s-all-about-me at the grassroots level plays out at the national level in the moral sloppiness that inspires public men and women to new heights—depths?—of sloppiness.
I have to laugh whenever a media oracle speaks of “populist outrage” on the right—or some such mythological contrivance. Populism as understood in historical context is more left-wing than right-wing, deriving from late-19th-century tussles between the debtor class—meaning farmers, chiefly—and the creditor class (meaning bankers and business). Populists argued for government regulation and programs favoring debtors, such as “the free and unlimited coinage of silver at the ratio of 16:1.” Government structures and policies had to be arranged for the benefit of those who made Wall Street a symbol of everything wrong with America. The Senate had to change. Conceived by the founders as an instrument for the tempering of public passions, it had to be opened up—as it was in 1913—for the better venting of those passions. Thanks to the 17th Amendment, which superseded Section 3, Clause 1, of the Constitution’s Article I, popular election of senators replaced election by state legislative vote. House and Senate, if still constitutionally distinct, came more nearly to approximate each other in their apprehension of, and respect for, popular moods.
And what have those moods reflected for the better part of a century? A desire that the federal government should smooth away the discontinuities and irregularities of daily life, economic life in particular. The founders distrusted government. Today, we love it; even while blackguarding its custodians and practitioners, we love it.
Government does so much for us, you see: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, farm price supports, ethanol subsidies, interstate highways, national parks, college-tuition loans, the Export-Import Bank. Quite a structure—pouring out benefits that fail from time to time to conceal fragmentation in the timbers, and to drown out troublesome inquiries: e.g., is it the federal government’s proper business in the first place to do all these marvelous things?
The problem “conservative reformers” face in the 21st century is that probably a minority of Americans truly desires reform of the sort that would restore America to anything like the relative prudence and the comparative placidity of—oh, I don’t know, 50 years ago? The precollapse days, reckoned from the Berkeley riots, the Vietnam War, and the rise of Jerry Rubin and the Hare Krishnas? What the reformers seem to clamor for, when they can be heard with any distinctness over the media buzz, is more frugal stewardship of a governmental vision hundreds of miles removed from that of the founders, who wouldn’t recognize healthcare, let alone official protection of same-sex marriage, as governmental duties and objectives.
That the sight of Hillary Clinton makes many want to hurl a pillow at the television set doesn’t mean those with the most agitated throwing arms want to repeal the New Deal. What they want to do is make it work better than it currently works. Which is fair enough—provided those so minded take some responsibility for their rhetoric: ceasing, for example, to pretend that a lout and a demagogue like Donald Trump is anything more interesting than an outlet for political road rage.
Under these unfortunate conditions a great deal is being asked of Congress, and of the House’s new, honorable, and gifted speaker, Paul Ryan. Ryan knows the country has no intention of marching back to the halcyon days when Calvin Coolidge’s signal contribution to good government was staying out of sight. Cleaning up “the mess in Washington” is going to be a fractious job. So you say that we’re going to rationalize the tax code? Well, wait, hold on. You’re leaving my tax breaks alone—right? And you’re not cutting my Social Security. No way, don’t try it: That rich guy over there—cut his instead. This is where you get when you let government pile up the goodies with minimal if any thought concerning how to keep the supply fresh.
The forest of our anxieties is alive with intersecting and contradictory interests: the consequence of federal efforts to hear and help out “the people,” sometimes in terms of needs, just as often in terms of numbers. Try disentangling those interests when “the people” say different things about different perplexities—with self-styled conservatives as prone to attack each other as to go with Bowie knives and bung starters against the very notion that government owes anybody a living.
We are soon to see whether conscientious and intelligent stewardship in the House can accomplish at least a little of what needs accomplishing for the general interest. We conservatives should offer that stewardship all the encouragement in the world—but with a certain humility and realism; with due understanding of the complicity of us all in the moral compromises, the feats of constitutional self-seeking that brought us here.