The Death of Politics?

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In late 1969 the late Karl Hess wrote a classic essay on thefuture of America entitled "The Death of Politics."That it was somewhat ahead of its time is evidenced by the factthat it appeared in Playboy rather than a public affairsmagazine. Hess, one of the most astute political observers of ourtime, was convinced that the evidence of the failure of thepolitical approach to solving societal ills had become so overwhelmingas to absolutely confirm the theoretical case for civil societyover political society. "Power and authority, as substitutesfor performance and rational thought, are the specters that haunt theworld today," he wrote. "They are the ghosts of awedand superstitious yesterdays."

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

The evidence that was clear to Hess has continued toaccumulate, and now it's becoming clear to the vast majority of Americans.In fact, the growing sophistication about the limits of politicalsociety is a worldwide phenomenon. Voters in nations around theglobe are turning out long-established parties in favor ofpolitical forces offering more open societies with lessburdensome governments. Silvio Berlusconi in Italy and VaclavKlaus in the Czech Republic have much more ambitious programs for rollingback the state than did either Margaret Thatcher or RonaldReagan.

In the United States intense disenchantment with governmentmanifested itself in the 20 million votes that Ross Perotgarnered in 1992. The Perot candidacy was made possible only byvirtue of the Supreme Court ruling that struck down theexpenditure limits contained in the Federal Election CampaignAct. It upheld, however, the contribution limitations that haveplayed a major role in preventing voter frustration with thepolitical status quo from vaporizing one or both of the two major partiesby now.

The term limitation movement is a powerful result of thepent-up voter energy that the FECA has created. It is, in effect, circumventingthe traditional paths to political change, and the change it promises tobring about is going to be much more than cosmetic. A citizenlegislature once dominated by individuals who prefer life in theproductive private sector will be able to address the true"gridlock" in Congress, namely, the vast inventory ofcurrent laws on the books that are doing serious, ongoing damageto our society. Those laws have both liberal and conservativesponsors. Under the regime of seniority for professionalpoliticians, the first thing a freshman member of Congress learnsis never to presume to attempt the repeal or downsizing of anexisting law. There are few orphans in that vast inventory.

With a citizen legislature that dynamic changes. People won'tconsider themselves "lawmakers" but true representatives.They will bring their own perspective, a product of living in thereal world, to bear on issues of national policy. And that isreason for the special interests and those who live off of government largesseto have real concern.

This is not some blip in public attitudes. This is thebeginning of a sea change in American governance. A recent GallupPoll showed that an astounding 54 percent of Americans want tomake Social Security voluntary. More and more peopleÚacross racialand political linesÚbelieve welfare does more harm than good. AsJohn 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 bythe public as inspired more by egalitarian ideology than genuineconcern for the environment. The movement to constitutionallylimit spending at the federal and state levels has renewedenergy. More and more people are taking seriously the idea ofeliminating the income tax and radically downsizing the role thatgovernment plays in our lives. People are simply no longer buyingthe endless rationales put forth by politicians who claim that ifonly we'd give them even more of our hard-earned money, theycould really solve our problems.

I was recently on the PBS television program "ThinkTank," and one of the other guests, Norman Ornstein of theAmerican Enterprise Institute, made a revealing statement."Term limits," he said, "are a manifestation ofAmerica's selfhatred." To him and others who judge thesuccess of Congress on the basis of how many major pieces oflegislation 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 wasmeant to play a very limited political role in protecting therights to life, liberty, and property of those who lived in thevastly larger civil society. The cultural roots of self-responsibilityand volunteerism run deep in America. By the tens of millions,Americans are returning to them. Karl Hess would have understood.

Edward H. Crane

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.