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.