Funny thing about politics. Things seem to happen at the political center – when there is one – but seldom do big things happen because of the center. Political shifts are driven by the fringe elements. John Brown was a wild-eyed goofball abolitionist. But four years after his death, the Emancipation Proclamation became the driving force behind retaining the structure of the Union. Barry Goldwater represented the extreme right in his day, and lost the 1964 presidential election in a landslide. Today’s Republicans would consider him unacceptably liberal.
So it pays to keep up with what’s happening on the fringes. Take this one: Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Americans believe the Federal Emergency Management Agency has been hard at work building concentration camps where citizens who disagree with government policy can be kept and killed as deemed necessary. They believe, apparently, that Congress has appropriated the money for this and that neither Ted Cruz nor Bernie Sanders has said anything about it. They believe FEMA, whose best people couldn’t tie their own shoelaces when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, is capable of this. There’s ample refutation of this stuff, some of which can be traced to the relentless fearmonger Glenn Beck, but that doesn’t seem to make much difference.
The important thing, though, is not that people believe it, but that they are prepared, willing and even eager to believe such preposterous claptrap. The distrust of the American government, among an alarmingly sizable portion of the population, has risen to pre-revolutionary levels.
Moreover, this distrust is not purely the product of far-right politics. The right does distrust the EPA and FEMA, but the left distrusts the NSA and the Pentagon. That’s how we get the big numbers. But as much as one side hates the other’s pets, it clings desperately to that part of the government it does support. The “conservatives” think the military will protect them from violent aggression, and the rest think the EPA will at least try to protect them from corporate misdeeds. So, grudgingly, each continues to pay taxes, each thereby supporting the other’s wants.
Arguably, then, we are being held together these days by bitter disagreement.
Honestly, I think that is largely true, and it’s not a good way to continue. The country will work a lot better if people agree more, and if we trust the government more; it is, after all, a government we put together through elected representatives, and one which we can change in the same way.
Truth to tell, each side has considerable reason to complain about how the other is forcing expenditures of tax dollars. Endless wars, routine violations of civil liberties and relationships with contractors that look as ugly as incest turn the stomachs of liberals. On the other hand, there’s ineffectiveness, insensitivity, incompetence, mismanagement and sheer failure on the part of many civilian agencies. And still, the Armed Forces and the intelligence agencies do a good job of protecting our physical safety, and the civilian agencies, under tremendous financial stress, are mostly successful in their missions.
What to do?
Execution may be difficult, but good policy is always simple. The prescription is, stop screwing up. Then communicate the success of government work as well as the failures. Both of these things require political leadership of a kind that simply has been absent for a long time.
When wars end, you really should be able to reduce military spending rather than increase it, as the president proposes. So why not go ahead and define for the military a task it can actually achieve, such as cooperating in United Nations peacekeeping, rather than starting wars that cannot be won? Then cut the Pentagon budget by $200 billion, or about 30 per cent, and shift the money back across the Potomac River to start the restoration of a once-proud civil service. That’s where the money came from, after all, because Ronald Reagan shipped the money across the river in the 1980s. The rest was just deficit spending of borrowed money. All of it turns out to have been a big mistake, as the military is out of control and the civilian bureaucracy is failing in too many places. Even if you grant – and it’s certainly not agreed upon — that the arms buildup won the Cold War, the problem is that the budget never came back down. It’s past time it did.
While we’re at it, we could carve up the monstrosity known as the Department of Homeland Security and tell the mismatched agencies that make it up, from the Coast Guard to the Secret Service and Border Patrol, to stop unconstitutional invasions of privacy. Half their budget, then, or close to $20 billion, can go back into fixing roads, building schools, educating teachers and preventing crime – you know, the long-term investments that actually make us secure.
To do all that, of course, will require extraordinary skill in management. There is a problem with management in America, and it is managers. In the private sector, management is all about cutting costs, which mostly means screwing employees, so that’s not the place to turn. In the government, management is about overseeing decline and covering butts, so homegrown talent probably won’t work well, either. The government, which still does the best research in the free world, could go to work inventing wholly new paradigms for creating a happy workforce. With the enormous talent the government still has in its ranks, that would be an amazing productive workforce. It may take a little digging to find out what the management researchers come up with, because there’s a fair chance that their work will be managed by incompetents who will do their conniving best to distort and misrepresent it.
Policy is just that simple, see?