Sunday, August 23, 2009

legislative libido

There's a reason why members of Congress seek out the arms of women who aren't their wives, indeed why they seek love in the strangest of places -- congressional page chat rooms, airport bathroom stalls, etc. It's the same reason they seek out face time on shouty political television, why the campaign has become a full-time parallel track to their time in office:

The actual work of governing is mind-numbingly boring. As it should be.

The popular conception of how government works -- formed through David Baldacci novels, insidery accounts by Bob Woodward, and whip-smart dialogue by Aaron Sorkin -- is a big bright shining lie. The clear courses of action; vision, talent, and intelligence in ample supply; quick resolutions: these are tragic distortions of how things actually work. They portray of government as faithfully as "The Day After Tomorrow" follows global warming science.

Since the average audience wont understand how things work -- we wont be entertained -- if the timeline is true, a writer will toss an iceberg onto Manhattan, and Jimmy Stewart will talk himself into a coma on the floor of the Senate. Because that's how things really get done. The villains are punished, the righteous vindicated, and all magically within 60 or 120 minutes, or 600 pages, depending on the medium and story arc.

Hard to pinpoint when, exactly, we lost leave of our senses about government. Perhaps the answer is that we never had much sense of these things to begin with. There's a reason why the Framers kept the Senate (an even more powerful arm of the Legislative Branch when it was first conceived) away from direct elections -- they knew the unwashed hordes were too passionate, and perhaps too stupid, to handle it.

For much of our short history, those without property or penis -- and/or with darker skin -- have had to prove themselves worthy of the vote and legislative power. As the old white men skewering Judge Sonia Sotomayor showed us earlier this month, that exam is still ongoing.

Similarly, the rest of us must prove that we deserve to participate in our representative democracy; that means not being stupid, when we can help it. So let's start with two things that are not sexy -- not now, not ever: health care reform and conservation of the environment.

The nettlesome issue of reforming health care is such that any policy that reduces it to a single sentence means that policy is based on a lie. Real health care reform has all the sex appeal of an actuarial table. Reforming it means refiling the paperwork of 300 million Americans: sheer drudgery -- mind-numbing, painful, and LONG.

The very fact that the Americans who need this work done the most can't seem to get their minds around it, and whine to pollsters about not being inspired by the President's leadership on this issue, explains why we are all saddled with mountains of consumer and mortgage debt.

After all, there's nothing sexy about waiting for something you want when you can have it NOW by taking on debt, be it a house, a car, or a night on the town. When you've been given absolutely no reason to act the adult and be responsible for your own choices, like most children, you'll whine.

This holds true for environmental policy, but this time, there's more blame to go around. We're not only contending with flag-waving idiots who say it's their God-given right to drive their SUVs (although they are idiots), but the well-meaning but fatally mistaken tree huggers as well. Fifty Little Things You Can Do To Save The Earth -- remember that? What utter nonsense. If that's not social policy at its infantilizing worst I don't know what is.

The idea of incrementalism, especially for a country as profligate when it comes to its resources as ours, is laudable. But incremental change means incremental outcomes. A better title would have been 50 little things you can start to do. But by inflating the outcome (refrigerating your drinking water you won't save the Earth) you minimized the effort.
But that wasn't the point, anyway? It wasn't to save the earth -- it was to sell books. And to sell, we needed to think big! Cue Hollywood...

The reductive, childlike analogies that characterize our political discourse didn't start with us, and will no doubt continue as a trend. The beginning and end of each life tends to hold these bookmarks -- as a child the world is explained to you in broad strokes and bright colors, and towards the end many choose to see it that way as well. It's the squishy, complex middle that's always shrinking.

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