Lemonade Lessons: comfort and complacency (Part I)

Janie Johnson Contributor
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What do non-activists, non-pundits, non–constitutional lawyers, non-academics, and non-politicians think about government policy and the political process? Why has the silent majority been silent for so long? How did we get so many losers (on both sides of the aisle) into positions of authority in our government? How and why did we as a nation allow our conservative principles of self-reliance, limited government, and support of free-market capitalism deteriorate into so much liberal collectivism and social engineering?

If the government derives its just powers from the governed, how did we lose control of what our career politicians and lifer bureaucrats were doing to our country?

The quality of American government has been deteriorating since it began, but this deterioration has been accelerating since the advent of activist presidents and judges. Our founders attempted to limit this deterioration by limiting the authority of the federal government. They put in checks and balances everywhere they could. They did their best to disperse power and limit the reach of the government.

Our founders separated powers into three branches of government, they established two houses of Congress (one more emotional representing the people and one more deliberative representing the states), they required judges and justices to be limited by the Constitution, they made it difficult to amendment the Constitution, and they created regular elections in case all of the other safeguards failed. They knew that government could not control itself and that politicians (like everyone else) would pursue their own self-interest.

What happened?

Our founders were educated and experienced in life, but they underestimated the cleverness and ingenuity of politicians and bureaucrats seeking more and more power. They did not consider their principles to be conservative or liberal; they considered them to be self-evident. They lived first-hand under the oppression of a too-strong government and they knew its false promises and its many shortcomings. They did not need to be convinced that excessive government resulted in fewer individual liberties because this was not just history lessons or political theory to them; they experienced it in their everyday lives.

Government has had its bright spots. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, civil rights, women’s suffrage, and the support of free-market capitalism are just a few. At first, the quality of governance deteriorated slowly; however, for the last 100 years or so, the pace of deterioration has picked up. Conservatives have been remarkably quiet, while progressives have been extraordinarily active. With every crisis came a deterioration of conservative values and an increase in liberal government intervention.

Why did “we the people” let this happen? Why did we allow the size, the intrusion, the inefficiency, and the ineffectiveness of government to continue to grow like a cancer while it began to favor one group of Americans over another? Are we really in love with government agencies like the DMV, the IRS, the Department of Energy, and so many others?

Is the average American happy to stand in line only to deal with uncaring bureaucrats to get a driver’s license? Do any of us jump with joy when we hear from an arrogant and menacing IRS agent wanting to meet with us? And has no one noticed that the Department of Energy, which was created to lead us to energy independence, has completely failed?

To the contrary, these failures and inefficiencies of government are well known. It would not surprise most people to see them parodied on Saturday Night Live.

When Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac failed, the average American was not shocked that two gigantic American government institutions had been managed so poorly that they lost billions of dollars and contributed materially to the current housing crisis. Neither were they surprised that the managers of these enterprises were politically connected or that they were hugely overpaid for their failures.

So, what keeps the silent majority silent? The answers lie in how our comfort and complacency turned into apathy. Most citizens in America have been comfortable and have generally not felt threatened. We experience problems, but most of us view them as temporary setbacks, not permanent negative circumstances. We are complacent because we believe “this too shall pass.”

Fortunately, some of this complacency, comfort, and apathy is abating. We see this in the groundswell of Tea Party movements all over the nation.

In a good year, four out of ten citizens eligible to vote do not vote. Of the remaining six, many are uninformed or only partially informed. Why? Because we are not worried. Too often we think: “politics does not affect us” or “one candidate will be as incompetent and self-serving as the other.” We think that politics has gotten so ugly that no upstanding and truly capable men or women would take on the responsibility of political office only to be publicly lampooned and personally smeared.

We are right about the general incompetence of our candidates. How many times have you heard, “I did not vote for him I voted against the other guy.” Plus, we are right that politics has gotten so ugly that most successful people do not want to subject themselves or their families to personal attacks and smears of all kinds.

So, who have we gotten for candidates? We did not get our best and brightest; too often we got the people who could do nothing else. As Tea Party citizen movements, talk radio, and 24-hour news expose more of the past and existing corruption in the political process, and as everyday people begin to better understand the important role they need to play in politics and governance, there is hope.

Janie Johnson is the author of Don’t Take My Lemonade Stand – An American Philosophy.