July 12, 2004
Policy and Polemic
At the same time, a simple (and frustrating) truth is that it is not people like Brad or me who change the world, it is people like Barbara Ehrenreich. Policy wonks then sigh, pick up the pieces, and try to convert the Ehrenreichian emotion of the moment into lasting programs. But without that emotion, we never get the chance.
From where I sit, policy wonks can do Ehrenreichian emotion pretty darn well sometimes. Am I the only who remembers the Declaration of Independence? (A quick refresher: that’s the one that accused the King of England of sending “swarms of Officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance.” Oh, and also: “He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people. He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty and perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.”)
Ehrenreich recognizes that sweeping rhetoric used to be a big part of official policy, and she also uses the Declaration to make that point.
Drum’s contention that good architects of policy are just tremble and reserve gets at what I think is one of the biggest problems with our policy-makers today — no boldness. It’s partially because the country’s split on a partisan razor-edge, and any lurches left or right could be disastrous for a party. But the effect is that politicians make their trade in these sly, sneaky little slivers of policy to which the public pays no attention, but corporations love. FDR’s New Deal could never survive in this climate.
Historian H.W. Brands has made this argument much better than I could:
But Franklin would be dismayed by the popular denigration of politics, and exceedingly impatient with us for acting helpless in the face of problems that the Founders would have tackled at once. To take one example, arguments over the Second Amendment, with its almost certainly inadvertent ambiguity about the relation of militia service to gun ownership, would largely cease if we simply rewrote it. Gun advocates already treat the militia clause as a nullity; let them erase the clause—or try to. Gun opponents want the clause to govern gun ownership; let them rewrite the amendment—or try to. But almost no one suggests such an obvious solution to the problem. Instead we treat the Constitution as holy writ, to be parsed and glossed but not otherwise tampered with. We agonize over “original intent” as if what the Founders believed ought to determine the way we live two centuries later. They would have laughed, and then wept, at our timidity.
The one trait the Founders shared to the greatest degree is the one most worth striving after today—but also one that is often forgotten in the praise of their asserted genius. These men were no smarter than the best their country can offer now; they weren’t wiser or more altruistic. They may have been more learned in a classical sense, but they knew much less about the natural world, including the natural basis of human behavior. They were, however, far bolder than we are. When they signed the Declaration of Independence, they put their necks in a noose; when they wrote the Constitution, they embarked on an audacious and unprecedented challenge to custom and authority. For their courage they certainly deserve our admiration. But even more they deserve our emulation.