Monday, July 19, 2010

Obama's fundamental mistake

By Donald Sensing

How fallen are the mighty! Entering the presidency with approval ratings in the 70s, President Obama's approval rating is now below his disapproval rating.

Various explanations have been proffered. Erstwhile Obama promoter Mort Zuckerman of USN&WR wrote that the main problem with Obama and administration is that they simply are amateurishly incompetent. (I am reminded of the Steve martin SNL skit as Thedoric of York, a medieval doctor, to whom Jane Curtin exclaims, "You charlatan! You killed my daughter, just like you killed most of my other children! Why don't you admit it! You don't know what you're doing!")

Well, Zuckerman gets no argument from me on the inherent competence of this administration, but this is a collateral effect of the president's fall from heights, not its cause. In a different essay, "Obama is barely treading water", Zuckerman hits closer to the target:

Americans today strongly support a pro-growth economic agenda that includes fiscal discipline, limited government, and deficit reduction. They fear the country is coming apart, while the novelty of Obama has worn off, along with the power of his position as the non-Bush.
That Obama almost completely misunderstands what the American people want - and hence, what they really elected him to do - is both unsurprising and also secondary, though it is joined at the hip to the central mistake Obama et. al. have made.

What is that mistake? Simply this: Barack Obama does not understand that people say they want change but almost never actually mean it.

Anyone who has become the chairperson of a volunteer organization, whether a civic club, the county chapter of a political party or, say (cough) pastor of a church, soon learns that what people say they want and what they will actually support are extremely divergent. The members say they want change, but it is crucial to understand that they are not united in this desire, even if sincere. That is, they each individually really may want change, but not collectively.

Translation: when someone says he wants change, what he really means is that he wants other people to be affected but not himself: "change for thee, but not for me." Each wants more of what he already has with no adversity in his personal situation.

So everyone wants cheaper and better health care, as long as the expense is borne by others. Everyone wants more government services, as long as his personal taxes do not rise.

In short, voters do indeed want to have their cake and eat it, too. What Obama never understood, and does not to this day, is that the enthusiasm with which the majority of Americans embraced his campaign message of hope and change should never have been confused with their willingness to be the changee. Voters always want everything to be better, but what they really mean is that they just want more of the same, not different.

An example closer to home for me. Almost everyone in a church will agree that the church should grow numerically. But what they almost always mean is that the church should simply be an identical, larger version of the status quo (push play button to play):


Peter Drucker once observed that human institutions, including governments, churches and families, exist to protect and extend the status quo. There is enormous inherent resistance to change in the human psyche. Overcoming this resistance requires the status quo to become so intolerable that its preservation repulses. But such intolerability almost never comes from within, but from without.

A prime example is the American Revolution. The oppression of the British Crown was exterior to the colonies whose people were quite content with the status quo even into the 1760s. The Crown's oppression was not sudden. It built up over time until, convinced that the Crown would never relent but would continue harsher measures, Americans accepted revolution as preferable to the status quo. Even then, a minority of Americans joined the revolution and almost as many fought for the Crown than against it.

What is surprising, though, is how the Founders expected the tumult of the Revolution's days to be the new status quo. The Federalist Papers show that the Constitution's authors expected the Congress to be riven with multiple small factions continually at political war with one another. They were in fact surprised at the birth of the two-party system and the rapidity with which it was born.

Two-party politics in the United States is designed to preserve the status quo, not change it.

But more specifically, Obama, like all "progressives," thinks that the masses are not merely chafing at the iron grip of the status quo but are actually eager to be embrace statist control of their lives. The progressive world view really is that ordinary people are basically incapable of living rightly and that therefore they must be managed for their own good - and the more closely the better. Furthermore, they think that the masses agree. Hence, the Democrats' basic reason that they call Republicans heartless is that the latter are not as eager to micromanage the lives of Americans as the Democrats are.

It is critical to realize, though, that "change for thee but not for me" is also the motto of the Political Class. That's why the president and his family are not going to be the beneficiaries of Obamacare. Nor will the Congress or its staff. The Political Class is just as resistant to change as the rest of the country, really more so because they are far more heavily invested in it. They are the ones who have the power to tell the rest of the country how to live, but their rules for you and me never decrease their wealth or power. What identifies the Political Class? Angelo M. Codevilla explains:
Rather, regardless of where they live, their social-intellectual circle includes people in the lucrative "nonprofit" and "philanthropic" sectors and public policy. What really distinguishes these privileged people demographically is that, whether in government power directly or as officers in companies, their careers and fortunes depend on government. They vote Democrat more consistently than those who live on any of America's Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Streets. These socioeconomic opposites draw their money and orientation from the same sources as the millions of teachers, consultants, and government employees in the middle ranks who aspire to be the former and identify morally with what they suppose to be the latter's grievances. ...

Its first tenet is that "we" are the best and brightest while the rest of Americans are retrograde, racist, and dysfunctional unless properly constrained.
The Political Class is much more approving of itself than the rest of us proles.
In their opinions on policy and politicians ranging from President Barack Obama to Sarah Palin, elites in Washington have a strikingly divergent outlook from the rest of the nation, according to a new POLITICO poll released Monday. ...

Overall, the 1,011 people surveyed nationally have a very pessimistic take on the direction of the country.

Only 27 percent believe the country is headed in the right direction, compared with 61 percent who think the nation is on the wrong track. Likewise, when asked whether the national economy is heading down the right or wrong track, just 24 percent chose the right track, compared with65 percent for the wrong track.

Yet among the 227 Washington elites polled, more think the country is on the right track, 49 percent, than the wrong track, 45 percent. On the economy, 44 percent of elites think the country is on the right track, compared with 46 percent who believe it is not.
This divide between the people and the pols is not much different whether the pols are Democrat or Republican. Both parties are dominated by members of the Political Class, who think the people exist to serve them rather than the other way round. Codevilla explains:
Our ruling class's agenda is power for itself. While it stakes its claim through intellectual-moral pretense, it holds power by one of the oldest and most prosaic of means: patronage and promises thereof. Like left-wing parties always and everywhere, it is a "machine," that is, based on providing tangible rewards to its members. Such parties often provide rank-and-file activists with modest livelihoods and enhance mightily the upper levels' wealth. ... Hence our ruling class's standard approach to any and all matters, its solution to any and all problems, is to increase the power of the government -- meaning of those who run it, meaning themselves, to profit those who pay with political support for privileged jobs, contracts, etc. Hence more power for the ruling class has been our ruling class's solution not just for economic downturns and social ills but also for hurricanes and tornadoes, global cooling and global warming. ... [T]here can be no doubt that such power and money makes Americans ever more dependent on those who wield it.
The problem is not that Republicans and Democrats are not different. They are. The problem is that they are different in ways that mean that neither party enhances personal freedom of individual Americans, and instead concentrates power and wealth in their hands.

All this has been many decades in the making, nay, at least a century, since the advent of American Progressivism under Theodore Roosevelt. The question now is whether the American people are aroused enough to do anything about it and if so, whether they still have enough power actually to do so. We'll see this November.


Mike Lief said...

Donald, just when I think I'm ready to tackle a subject, I stumble across someone who's done such a good job that I find myself wondering what I might add.

In this case, not much.

Well said.

長修長修 said...
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Tailwind said...

Great piece. I fear the elites have so stacked the deck that even a complete turnover in November will not convince them they had better change their ways. We are on the precipice....