Our Elected Followers

08/30/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Someone once told me you can tell a man's priorities by looking at his checkbook. Sound counsel for sure. But in the current atmosphere of budgetary chaos afflicting government at all levels -- federal, state, and local -- it is discouraging, disheartening, and distressing to watch so-called political leaders cower under the weight of the public policy responsibilities they so desperately campaigned to assume.

Rarely have we as a society been treated to such theatre of the absurd as we are currently witnessing in the halls of state capitols across the nation. Surely, the draconian budget cuts being undertaken in California attest to the inability of the public interest to prevail over ideologically-driven political hyperbole. Conservatives of all political stripes, Democratic and Republican, have foisted the well-worn and unfortunately effective bogeyman of higher taxes up the flagpole of freedom to thwart rational economic arguments for social spending that would have positive long-term benefits.

Adding insult to injury, discussion of a balanced fiscal prescription for economic growth, which by the very definition of balanced would mean a discussion of both spending and taxing options, gets drowned out in the din of the ear shattering drumbeat of "no new taxes." Actually, it is no taxes period, old, new or otherwise. The old refrain of eliminating wasteful spending to solve our budgetary imbalances is as loud today as it has ever been. Of course, the conservative zealots who propound such mush are armed with meat axes, not scalpels. Their butchery always hits the poorest the hardest, and inflicts the maximum amount of pain on those who are least represented in our political system.

The atrocious behavior of Congressional members, on both sides of the aisle, who stubbornly refuse to buck the health care and insurance titans that profit spectacularly from the dysfunctional system of health care in this country is shameful, and in another context might be considered criminal. And these cowards hide behind cost arguments, a modern day equivalent of human shields, to limply defend their positions. Yet, these very same conservatives gamely support and encourage deficit-enhancing tax cuts regardless of cost. They also staunchly support our troops by subsidizing Blackwater and Haliburton and other war profiteers while failing in their responsibilities to protect our soldiers and families from the psychological trauma post-combat. It is all a sham. It is the perpetuation of political self-interest that triumphs over the public interest.

And what is so frustrating is the use of us, their constituents, to justify their actions. As I continually hear what it is the people want, i.e. the people don't want higher taxes; it makes me want to scream. Just ask anybody, nobody wants higher taxes, hell, I don't want higher taxes. But I am willing to pay them for things I think are important. Health care, education, economic development, job training, improved infrastructure, energy independence, mass transit, research and development, science, hell there are a lot of things I believe are worth paying for. Others may have different priorities; this is the beauty of the democratic system. But to blindly ascribe to the insane proposition that all taxes are bad, and most spending is wasteful, is a prescription for a very unhealthy society.

What is even more frustrating is this notion that if the people do not want it, it cannot be good. My kids did not like their vegetables -- it does not mean they are not good for them. Besides, we do not call them our elected followers, they are supposed to be leaders, and thus have a responsibility to lead. We pay them to hire staff that counsel them with the information we do not have either the time or inclination to assemble. They are charged with and charge us for the privilege of making decisions, yet more times than not I hear that they are dutifully reflecting the wishes of their constituents. Well, I could hire a ten year old to do that, and pay him or her considerably less.

And there is no consistency to their arguments in this regard anyway. While nearly three-quarters of the American people support a public option in the current health care reform debate, we still see many of our elected followers following the lead of the special-interest constituency and not the will of the electorate. If by some miracle of God or nature three-quarters of the electorate suddenly supported higher taxes, I have no doubt that these conservatives would figure out a way to pander to wealthy contributors who feel differently.
In the end, of course, we the people do share considerable culpability here. We refuse to hold our elected followers to any sense of accountability, we continue to turn the other cheek when rampant irrationality and self-interest holds sway over the decision-making process, we even delude ourselves into accepting preposterous claims by advertisers and spinmeisters that defy common sense.

I heard George Will over the weekend decrying the Obama economic stimulus program because it was not being spent fast enough and he believes that the recession is either over or ending and to date only 8 percent of the funds have been expended. Now, I believe he is a moderately intelligent man, but once again blinded by conservative orthodoxy. He is bright enough to know that even if technically the recession is coming to an end, or may have actually ended, joblessness will continue to remain a problem for many months to come. Thus, as job enhancing stimulus funds continue to be spent, they will actually be addressing a problem that continues. To me, that sounds as though the program is working and doing exactly what it is supposed to do. Seems to me he is being held hostage to a political ideology, and he is neither elected nor incapable of intellectual thought. This is the level of polarization that has hamstrung our system.

It is endemic and thoughtless. It is devoid of rationalization. It is oblivious to practical consequences. It is divisive and counterproductive. But most of all, it endangers our ability to remedy problems through deliberation, discourse, and debate. Rigid ideology debases our democratic system, and we all have a responsibility to temper our ideological fervor in times of crisis. This does not mean we forego our principles or lessen our resolve, but it does mean that we sharpen our diplomatic skills. It also means that we sometimes sacrifice self-interest for the public interest. Who knows, you may actually be rewarded for it, but regardless it is your duty to do so.