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This season’s campaign rhetoric is stacking up as a case study in public manipulation. Based on surveys showing widespread anxiety about morals and the supposed anomie of youth culture, politicians are turning to cultural themes and proposing political solutions that limit fundamental freedoms. This appears to be equally true of Republicans and Democrats, who are wrapping such proposals as curbs on free speech and restrictions on gun ownership in the mantle of cultural conservatism.
Never mind that government is the greatest enemy civilization ever faced. Never mind that no piece of legislation ever shaped up anyone’s morals; to the contrary, the expansion of government power draws energy from families and churches and communities, where moral education and restoration actually takes place. And never mind that most people don’t trust the government to improve the culture any more than they trust a criminal to install a burglar alarm.
Politicians grab any idea to justify political control, even when the new platform blatantly contradicts the old. Consider candidate Gore. In speeches and interviews, the Luddite egalitarian of the past is reinventing himself as a bourgeois statesman heralding prosperity, faith, and family. The man who once attacked the automobile as a crime against nature now touts all the newest technologies. This famed big spender also promises to slash bureaucracy.
The Republicans claim Gore is stealing their issues, and point to the myriad ways in which the New Gore contradicts the Old Gore. And they note he isn’t a rooted Southerner, but a privileged ruling-class offspring.
True, indeed. But exposing Gore as a dissembler only takes you so far. What the new Gore really illustrates is a core truth about the State and those who seek to run it. To achieve power, the successful politician will say anything. It doesn’t matter to him if he draws from the Left or Right, or anything in between. Whether the slogan is “protect Social Security,” “protect our children,” or “protect American interests abroad,” the goal is the same: to bamboozle the public.
That is the reason a politician so easily changes his rhetoric. In his heart, he knows his profession is illegitimate and parasitical, and he envies the success of people in private enterprise who earn their way through authentic service to others.
The modal politician only pretends to serve. His real talent is appearing to be something he is not, and in manipulating others to his political advantage. This is especially true of characters like Gore and George W. Bush, who were born and raised in a political cocoon, and have had little contact with what is real or true.
Despite their pretensions, these men secretly fear being found out. They worry that one day people are going to look them in the eye, discover their essential phoniness, and scoff. This attitude they regard as a threat, not only to their psyches, but to the very regime they seek to control.
To prevent this, politicians constantly hunt for public values they can exploit, to make themselves appear connected to the rest of us. Truly, any set of values will do. The key point is not the message but the exploitation of the message for the achievement and maintenance of power.
Thus the new vogue of mixing religion and politics. Candidates now proclaim the intimate details of their spiritual lives, in a way that would have been unthinkable a decade or two ago. But times have changed, so they change the campaign scam.
A religious revival has taken hold in the land, and there is widespread concern about popular culture. The political class seizes on this in its constant search for legitimacy. Now Gore can call for direct federal subsidies for religious providers of welfare and not experience a backlash; indeed the opposite occurs.
But let’s be clear about cause and effect. Politics hasn’t brought about a change in people’s religious beliefs. Indeed, the growing revulsion toward politics has helped turn people’s attention toward deeper sources of meaning. Political leaders are merely using the religious revival to disguise their real goal.
Hence, when Gore promises “to build an America that is not only better off, but better,” he apes what he thinks are opinion trends in the real world. By playing off the widespread disenchantment with secular materialism (most clearly embodied in the Leviathan State), Gore seeks another means of gaining power.
The same is true with his new emphasis on fiscal conservatism. But he is not “stealing” themes pioneered by the GOP. Both parties filched these ideas from the culture at large, which more and more distrusts the State.
The political success of men like Gore and Bush consists in discovering the most powerful themes and using them to their personal advantage. But Americans don’t have to be useful idiots for the political class. Instead, we can commit ourselves to a very old-fashioned idea: liberty. The ethics of liberty ask nothing of the State and expect nothing of its lackeys.
This way, we can also insulate ourselves from the media circus already surrounding the presidential campaign. We know that we can trust no man who promises to make us better, richer, or happier through government. Instead, we should look them all in the eye, and scoff.