Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Populist Rage

The political culture in the United States is reaching the point where an unstoppable force collides into an unmovable object. We see three large groups of voters in this nation: Democrats, "independents", and Republicans. Democrats and Republicans will always support their ideological choice, though with varying degrees of intensity depending on whether they are in or out of power (less power will equate to more anger, and hence more intensity). Independents have been the hinge on which the last two national elections and the special elections of 2009/10 have swung upon. We know what determines the votes of Democrats and Republicans, but what do independents vote upon?

Independents, as many studies have shown, are actually among the least knowledgeable of voters. Democrats and Republicans make a point of cleaning up political cognitive dissonance; independents give much less thought to the matter and are more prone to vote based on feelings or impressions of the current state of affairs. If times are good, they will vote to keep whoever is in power, as they equate stable good times with that government. If times are bad, however, whoever is in power will suffer regardless of their policies (though particularly repugnant policies can exacerbate the problem).

The general political culture in this nation has taken a very hard turn towards statism since the 1930's. We expect the government to provide a great number of services the Founding Fathers never foresaw the Federal or State governments performing. People generally think of benefits from the government to be "free" or at least free for them personally. In a sense, this is true, as we do not pay directly for our "free" education, our "free" roads, our "free" cops, etc. We do, however, pay in terms of national debt and taxes in the future. Sometimes this is reversed, as we see in Social Security and Medicare; we pay, then many years later we receive. The point is, we do not pay directly for the good being received; we do not have any idea whether what we receive is worth what we paid because there is no direct transaction.

Here we have an unstoppable force, the desire of people to get more (apparently free) stuff. If an individual does not directly pay for a product, they have no incentive not to get as much as humanly possible. They will put pressure on their elected representatives to make more and more available, and anyone who stands up against this hates poor people, minorities, your favorite "oppressed" group here, etc.

Here we have an unmovable object, the desire of people not to pay more taxes for which they receive no direct good in return. Shockingly, people hate giving up money they work for in order to apparently receive nothing. They will put pressure on politicians not to put such damaging charges upon their accounts.

And did I mention if the politician puts us into debt, they hate our children?

As long as we continue to demand the government provide all sorts of goods it is not designed to provide (I have written elsewhere as to why governments should not be involved), this dilemma will exist. We are currently seeing states, such as New York and California, run into financial trouble, where they can not borrow more money (nobody trusts their credit enough to loan to them), where they cannot raise taxes (politically inexpedient and economically damaging), and where they cannot reduce spending (people see those benefits as some sort of right). There is no solution; independents who demand to have their cake and eat it too become very angry when the paradox isn't solved.

The bottom line is this: once (or, more harrowing, if) our economy improves, we will see some sort of political stability. Until then, the populist outrage is going to be vented against anyone in a position of power. Those who have argued the nanny state, through the miracle of social science, will provide far better than a free market have raised expectations extremely high; whether anyone can meet those expectations is questionable. But there they are and they are not going anywhere anytime soon.

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