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At least until the last few weeks, when something resembling genuine
interest in the McCain challenge to George Bush has surfaced (though nowhere
near as intense as the media’s interest in the putative reformer),
political reporters have been fond of scolding the American people for not
being as intensely interested in politics as they are. David S. Broder wrote
sadly last month of a voter in New Hampshire who just couldn’t work up any
passion over the trifling issue of whether any of the four major-party
front-runners would be much different from the others.

When Michael Kinsley of Slate.com edited the New Republic some years ago,
he got terribly exercised over the fact that the House bank check-cashing
scandal was such a big deal. “It’s not that most members of Congress deserve
the virtually automatic re-election prospects they traditionally enjoy,”
wrote Kinsley. “Quite the opposite. It’s that there are so many good reasons
to vote against the typical incumbent politician (including those in the
executive branch).

“What serious citizen tolerates a $400 million deficit but draws the line
at a $400 rubber check? If 125 members of Congress were voted out over their
failure to enact a capital gains tax cut, or over too much foreign aid, that
would be a mistaken but responsible exercise in democracy. If a similar
massacre occurs over the House Bank, that will be a joke.”

When Moses saw a bush in the wilderness that burned with fire and yet was
not consumed, and turned aside to see this great marvel, the Lord spoke to
him out of the midst of the burning bush and said, “Draw not nigh hither:
Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is
holy ground.” (Exodus 3:5)

Is not the tone similar? Citizen, you are entering the sacred realm of
Public Policy. Put off thy levity and frivolity, for your responsibilities
as a postulant of the Temple are serious ones. Take care that you consider
only the issues deemed suitably serious by the Temple’s votaries, and that
you do so in a sober and reflective manner. Only then will you be worthy to
worship at the altar of the State and receive its benefactions.

Any suggestion that the Emperor is unclothed will be dealt with severely.

A lot of us who are so taken with political issues as to think and write
about them constantly, are sometimes puzzled by the failure of the rest of
the American people to be as consumed by such matters as we are. We even
fall into the temptation, from time to time, to consider those who are less
obsessively consumed by such issues in need of avuncular reminders to grow
up and take these matters as seriously as we do. Sometimes we lecture our
fellows on their “apathy,” coming very close to blaming the people who just
don’t care enough for the corruption, unresponsiveness, and venality of
government. Most people can’t even tell you the name of their
Congresscritter, for Heaven’s sake. People get the government they deserve.

We too often forget that ignorance about government activities and
policies, even gross ignorance, can be a perfectly rational and eminently
sensible response to the fact that there is very little we can do to
influence government policy — and that in a democracy the vote of the
utterly ignorant counts exactly as much as the vote of the exquisitely
informed. And in refusing to treat the political process with the great
dignity and seriousness the keepers of the cult prefer — in implicitly
resisting the notion that the State or the government is somehow of a
different and more elevated character than, and consequently greater than
the sum of its individual citizen parts — Americans may be partaking of a
deeper wisdom than is available to your average policy wonk.

The besetting myth of the 20th century is, as the American essayist Frank
Chodorov put it in 1956, ” … that society is a transcendent entity,
something apart and greater than the sum of its parts, possessing a
suprahuman character and endowed with like capacities. It operates in a
field of its own, ethically and philosophically, and is guided by stars
unknown to mortals. Hence, the individual, the unit of society, cannot judge
it by his own limitations or apply to it standards by which he measures his
own thinking and behavior. He is necessary to it, of course, but only as a
replaceable part of a machine. It follows, therefore, that society, which
may concern itself paternalistically with individuals, is in no way
dependent on them.”

The truth is that society is merely all of us. Government is not some
superhuman agency, but simply people who exercise power over other people.
It has no wisdom beyond the wisdom of those who happen to work within it. It
should have no power beyond what we grant it in the hope that it will
operate on behalf of a decent and civilized order. If it fails to do so, its
job is to get out of the way.

What some choose to call lamentable apathy about the inner workings of
government is perfectly sensible for many people. If several gasoline
stations in the neighborhood have different prices and different levels of
service, it is sensible to be aware and informed about these differences,
because you can choose the one that best suits your own needs and benefit
immediately from making the choice. Choosing among different politicians, or
among different policy options, is a more chancy proposition. Your voice in
a congressional election is one of several hundred thousand. Despite all the
civic pieties about how every vote counts, it’s unlikely that your voice
will be decisive; even if it seems to be, the candidate will be subject to
the claims of many different constituencies, some better organized and
better financed than you. If the politician you prefer is elected, he or she
will be one of 435 members of the House. The House operates under its own
rules, subject to unique constraints and pressures, and so does the Senate.
Whatever the House and Senate do must be approved by the president, and is
then subject to interpretation by the courts and implementation by
government agencies that are less directly accountable to the people than is
Congress.

So if you feel very strongly about a cause or an issue, and choose to
pursue it through the political process, your chances of getting the result
you want are slim at best. It’s nowhere near so simple as choosing the gas
station with lower prices and realizing the benefit of having more money in
your pocket immediately.

Unless you are prepared to devote large chunks of your life to the
pursuit of your goal, perhaps becoming something of a professional activist,
and understanding that the end result may be a compromise that bears little
resemblance to what you really wanted, politics is an indirect and
frustrating process. If, like many of us, what you most want from government
is to be left alone to pursue your own goals and aspirations with as little
harassment as possible, politics is more burden than opportunity.

What many people keenly interested in politics view as ignorance and
apathy, then, is perfectly sensible — what some scholars call “rational
ignorance.” If our choice makes little or no difference to an ultimate
political outcome, it makes sense to be closely informed about the issues
and candidates only if we find them fascinating in and of themselves.

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