November/December 1994

The Death of Politics?

In late 1969 the late Karl Hess wrote a classic essay on the future of America entitled "The Death of Politics." That it was somewhat ahead of its time is evidenced by the fact that it appeared in Playboy rather than a public affairs magazine. Hess, one of the most astute political observers of our time, was convinced that the evidence of the failure of the political approach to solving societal ills had become so overwhelming as to absolutely confirm the theoretical case for civil society over political society. "Power and authority, as substitutes for performance and rational thought, are the specters that haunt the world today," he wrote. "They are the ghosts of awed and superstitious yesterdays."

But if the Establishment was bemused by Karl Hess's audacity more than two decades ago, it isn't laughing now. It seems clear that Americans have lost patience with and confidence in government to a degree we haven't witnessed since — well, the Boston Tea Party comes to mind. And this mood shouldn't be interpreted as evidence of a renewed enthusiasm for the Republican party, although the GOP will likely be its immediate beneficiary, due in part to its professed ideology but more substantially to the fact that it possesses fewer incumbents than the Democrats.

The evidence that was clear to Hess has continued to accumulate, and now it's becoming clear to the vast majority of Americans. In fact, the growing sophistication about the limits of political society is a worldwide phenomenon. Voters in nations around the globe are turning out long-established parties in favor of political forces offering more open societies with less burdensome governments. Silvio Berlusconi in Italy and Vaclav Klaus in the Czech Republic have much more ambitious programs for rolling back the state than did either Margaret Thatcher or Ronald Reagan.

In the United States intense disenchantment with government manifested itself in the 20 million votes that Ross Perot garnered in 1992. The Perot candidacy was made possible only by virtue of the Supreme Court ruling that struck down the expenditure limits contained in the Federal Election Campaign Act. It upheld, however, the contribution limitations that have played a major role in preventing voter frustration with the political status quo from vaporizing one or both of the two major parties by now.

The term limitation movement is a powerful result of the pent-up voter energy that the FECA has created. It is, in effect, circumventing the traditional paths to political change, and the change it promises to bring about is going to be much more than cosmetic. A citizen legislature once dominated by individuals who prefer life in the productive private sector will be able to address the true "gridlock" in Congress, namely, the vast inventory of current laws on the books that are doing serious, ongoing damage to our society. Those laws have both liberal and conservative sponsors. Under the regime of seniority for professional politicians, the first thing a freshman member of Congress learns is never to presume to attempt the repeal or downsizing of an existing law. There are few orphans in that vast inventory.

With a citizen legislature that dynamic changes. People won't consider themselves "lawmakers" but true representatives. They will bring their own perspective, a product of living in the real world, to bear on issues of national policy. And that is reason for the special interests and those who live off of government largesse to have real concern.

This is not some blip in public attitudes. This is the beginning of a sea change in American governance. A recent Gallup Poll showed that an astounding 54 percent of Americans want to make Social Security voluntary. More and more peopleÚacross racial and political linesÚbelieve welfare does more harm than good. As John Stossel demonstrated on a recent ABC television special, people are simply fed up with the politically correct "victimization" syndrome.

Environmental movement claims are increasingly being viewed by the public as inspired more by egalitarian ideology than genuine concern for the environment. The movement to constitutionally limit spending at the federal and state levels has renewed energy. More and more people are taking seriously the idea of eliminating the income tax and radically downsizing the role that government plays in our lives. People are simply no longer buying the endless rationales put forth by politicians who claim that if only we'd give them even more of our hard-earned money, they could really solve our problems.

I was recently on the PBS television program "Think Tank," and one of the other guests, Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, made a revealing statement. "Term limits," he said, "are a manifestation of America's selfhatred." To him and others who judge the success of Congress on the basis of how many major pieces of legislation get passed, the stirrings outside the Beltway are inexplicable. If Americans don't like Congress, they must not like themselves, for Congress is America. But of course it is not. Congress was meant to play a very limited political role in protecting the rights to life, liberty, and property of those who lived in the vastly larger civil society. The cultural roots of self-responsibility and volunteerism run deep in America. By the tens of millions, Americans are returning to them. Karl Hess would have understood.

Ed Crane is the founder and president emeritus of the Cato Institute. Under his leadership, the Cato Institute grew to become one of the nation’s most prominent public policy research organizations.