Love the Government, Hate the Government

I have for several months now been vexed by the irresolvable contradictions of the American political mindset.  For the first two decades of my life, I was brought up to believe that the problem with our society was that we had way too much faith in the government–the State was our Saviour, an idol to which we sacrificed all and for which we looked for every solution.  And this critique resonated deeply with me.  

For the past year, though, I have begun to wonder.  Having traveled overseas, what has struck me most about America is not how much faith we put in our government, but how little.  The rise of the Tea Party movement and the fall of Congressional approval ratings to historic lows has underscored this long-growing tendency of American politics.  We don’t trust our government to do anything; we consider it not our government, but simply the government, an alien entity that forces us to obey it and pay it tribute, like an invading force.  And perhaps this should be a greater matter of concern than the State-as-idol concern.  After all, our current situation bears all the marks of the decline and fall of a great civilizations, as summarized by Carroll Quigley in his 1963 The Evolution of Civilizations (thanks to my Dad for this quote): 

“[There is] acute economic depression, declining standards of living, civil wars between the various vested interests, and growing illiteracy.  The society grows weaker and weaker.  Vain efforts are made to stop the wastage by legislation.  But the decline continues. The religious, intellectual, social, and political levels of the society begin to lose the allegiance of the masses of the people on a large scale.  New religious movements begin to sweep over the society.  There is a growing reluctance to fight for the society or even to support it by paying taxes.”

Perhaps the idolatry and the hatred of the government are just two sides of the same coin–in modern Europe, they don’t distrust their governments so thoroughly because they never invest them with such a sacred aura in the first place…the government is simply a boring bureaucracy that gets an important job done with more or less efficiency, usually less than desired, but not enough to warrant massive protests.  At any rate, I’ve been pondering this problem unsuccessfully for several months now, hoping for a brilliant insight.  

I haven’t had one yet, but this morning, I came across an article by Patrick Deneen on The Front Porch Republic, which eloquently ponders and describes this national schizophrenia as a result of our contradictory longings as a people and hatred of ourselves: 

“Our hatred of Washington is a hatred of ourselves, above all for our contradictory longings that we refuse to face. We pine for a time of accountability and responsibility, but fear the burdens of sacrifice and self-government. We ache for a government that can make America great again, and suspect that any effort in that direction will further impoverish subsequent generations. We long to be self-sufficient, but fear a world without safety nets.”  

The whole essay is well worth checking out.

7 thoughts on “Love the Government, Hate the Government

  1. After all, our current situation bears all the marks of the decline and fall of a great civilizationsIf you're interested, there's been interesting work done on this concept since 1963. The seminal work is Tainter's The Collapse of Complex Societies, or for a more recent and popular text applying his historical arguments to today, see Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.

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  2. Peter Escalante

    I forget who said that the problem with Americans is that, unlike Englishmen (or Europeans), they can't distinguish between their government and their country. Whomever it was, they had a point. Because if you can make the distinction, you can repose meanwhile in the local, the abiding country, and from there work for change in the governmental institutions, rather than despairing of the republic altogether. Decline is hard to measure. Before Quigley, there was Brooks Adams, and Spengler, and a host of other Cassandras; mostly the prognostication of decline was a myth expressing incapacity to deal with change, an inability to restore good form in new circumstances (see Fritz Stern, "The Politics of Cultural Despair", for an analysis of this mood in Weimar Germany), and not an objective measure. That myth had catastrophic consequences which were quite real. Rather than diagnose "decline", it's better to ask, "what can I do to make things better than I found them?"We need to look at better models of American government and work for change, rather than taking refuge in anarcho-populist fantasies of the Beck variety. I'd suggest John Lukacs, "Democracy and Populism" for a good introduction to the general problems and principles, and see also his biography of George Kennan, the model American civil servant.And also give a look at David Koyzis' "Political Visions and Illusions". It's very helpful.peaceP

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  3. Brad Littlejohn

    Yeah Byron, the Quigley quote was from a much more recent book called the Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order by Samuel Huntingdon, that my dad recommended to me. I suppose you've heard of it. Thanks for the recommendations, Peter. Prognostications of decline are as old as civilization itself (have you read Arthur Herman's The Idea of Decline in Western History? He gives a pretty thorough history of some of those thinkers you mentioned). However, I am inclined to be very pessimistic about the direction of American politics given the complete collapse of faith in the political process and the rise of Christians seriously discussing tax revolts and secession. Your first paragraph is right on the mark…I think O'Donovan said something like this to us last year. He blamed a lot of it on the fact that America does not, like most Western countries, have a head of state that is distinct from their head of government, which is quite an interesting theory. But I think the problem must go deeper than that.

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  4. Donny

    Your first paragraph is right on the mark…I think O'Donovan said something like this to us last year. He blamed a lot of it on the fact that America does not, like most Western countries, have a head of state that is distinct from their head of government, which is quite an interesting theory. But I think the problem must go deeper than that.

    I wonder if it's historical. Just a few observations: America, as an independence nation, has never gone through a successful revolution. It was created by one, but because of the situation, it wasn't seen as a nation going through a change in governments, but rather the new government, in some sense, was a new nation. That hasn't been changed since.Also, the government was founded on the idea that the government is formed by and for the people. If the people's identity is wrapped up in the government, then the nation's definitely will, too.As far as the article goes, he lost me by the end, but the basic division he was talking about also seems to have been there since the beginning. The fact that the government was tied to our general, and yet also made up of a free, independent people guaranteed that well enough. Just consider the ideology behind the revolution: government is put in place by the people, and when the government becomes constructive, they can re-make it how they see fit. The people, being free by nature, are in authority over the government, not the other way around, and so the people are there to make sure the government is helpful, not harmful.So yeah, anti-government/independence leads to government solving our problems in a strange way. And that makes me wonder whether what you noted in the original post has always been a part of political discourse. Think about it this way: if government is formed by and for the people, then whenever that government becomes destructive to the people, then the government, by implication, is no longer really being run by the people, but by people who have hijacked it for their own purposes. The solution, then, is to get the people to run it again, and not these foreign political invaders. There are a few questionable assumptions behind that (Are you sure "the people" aren't, in some way, suicidal? What is "the people" anyway?), but it does make sense if you accept the "by the people, for the people" line. At least it does in my head on this specific morning.

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  5. Peter, Cultural decline is one thing, but Tainter is interested in social decline. He has quite objective measures to define decline, since he is interested in declines in social complexity. These would include such things as the size of geopolitical units (e.g. through the secession of part of one country from the rest or the breakdown of a larger unit like the USSR), the degree of job specialisation, the length and complexity of supply chains and so on. He also has a coherent and influential account of how it is that societies reach a point where they undergo relatively sudden and irreversible declines in social complexity (which is what he means by "collapse").

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