Friday, November 9, 2007

Panaceas & Bugaboos

"No one who has given any study to the development and propagation of political doctrine in the United States can have failed to notice how the belief in issues among politicians tends to run in exact ratio to the popularity of those issues. Let the populace begin suddenly to swallow a new panacea or to take fright at a new bugaboo, and almost instantaneously nine-tenths of the masterminds of politics begin to believe that the panacea is a sure-cure for all the malaises of the Republic, and the bugaboo an immediate and unbearable menace to all law, order and domestic tranquility."

That's what Mencken wrote in a book review on a book about Teddy Roosevelt in 1920. The review appears in A Mencken Chrestomathy, Chapter XIII, Statesmen.

When we see Rudy Giuliani trying to decide what he thinks about a woman's right to choose or when we see Hillary Clinton trying to decide what she thinks about eligibility for drivers licenses, we understand what Mencken was saying.

My colleague was saying at lunch today that Rudy Giuliani believes in abortion. I said he was being taken in by the people Mencken would have called charlatans and mountebanks. It is not that Giuliani believes in abortion. What he believes in is getting elected. He has to say what he believes the public wants to hear in the jurisdiction where he is running. The rightwingers are being too hard on him. If he had been running in Utah or Louisiana, Giuliani would never have talked positively about a woman's right to choose. Why do voters persist in believing that politicians have sincere beliefs the way other Americans have sincere beliefs. Mencken knew. Why do people still get taken in after all this time by the idea that something one of these candidates says arises from anything other than a keen instinct for saying what the public wants to hear? The public gets played back to it what the public wants. If a candidate does not say what the public wants, the candidate does not get elected. Candidates should not be reviled for what our fellow citizens reward. As the economists say, when a particular behavior receives rewards, you get more of that behavior.

If the voters did not continue to elect individuals who displayed that kind of behavior, individuals who aspire to elective office would exhibit different characteristics. In short, it's time to stop blaming the candidates and shoulder some responsibility ourselves.

No comments: