Roughly thirty years ago the late New York Governor Mario Cuomo neatly summed up the maddening truth of politics in America today: “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.” The disappointment the electorate so often feels after an election when the soaring rhetoric of campaigning crashes into real world limitations is today as a common as the birds in the trees.
However, the desire of politicians to not disappoint one’s ardent supporters has led to a significant economic problem over the past several decades—government borrowing and spending on a scale never before seen in our nation’s history to pay for unaffordable promises. Our skyrocketing national debt has been the signal disaster of our country’s recent existence, and this irresponsible march toward insolvency has placed an unconscionable burden upon future generations of taxpayers.
The unfortunate refusal of our recent crop of over-promising politicians to recognize the difference between poetry and prose has now led to a most unfortunate side effect: Many voters now firmly believe that money is a limitless resource that allows government to provide for all their wants and needs—unless politicians are “heartless” and want them to needlessly suffer.
Therefore, the debates about policies are no longer about determining priorities and balancing them against available resources. We instead are asked to choose between the wonderful plans of “compassionate” visionaries who want to provide unending benefits and the “cruel” politicians who actually mastered sixth grade arithmetic. The parade of programs and services many voters expect to be provided at no cost—now with the added burden a basic income for all—is a worrisome sign that many truly consider government to be the indulgent parent they never actually had.
That price tags attached to many of these proposals—universal health care, free college education, job guarantees—run into the tens of trillions of dollars. The mythology pushed by those leaders making the promises—that all of this can be funded by taxing “the rich”—makes the costs seem not only manageable but also an opportunity to wreak vengeance upon those who live lives of comparative ease. Not realizing that the affluent pay the lion’s share of the taxes already, many voters are encouraged to labor under the impression that comfort is just a painless tax increase—for somebody else—away.
Why are so many voters oblivious to basic fiscal reality, and what (if anything) can be done about it?
I sometimes wonder whether the desire of so many voters for a parental style of government that provides every need and want—while also imposing all sorts of equally parental restrictions on thought and behavior—is an outcome of the breakdown of family stability and traditional institutions in America over the past several decades. Having been denied any sense of security in their youths, perhaps many are susceptible to the notion that government can be the mommy and daddy of their dreams— by ensuring that every day is Christmas.
Moreover, aside from providing for all material wants, government can also—according to many who should know better—somehow be empowered to provide emotional security as well by shielding those who find the complexities and ambiguities of adult life overwhelming from all thoughts and viewpoints that they might find distressing. Seen for what it is—terror disguised as virtue—this widespread and worrisome support for all types of speech codes and censorship in our schools, at the workplace, and on the internet becomes eminently understandable. Frantic for the type of parental protectiveness they never had as children, a great many young (and not so young) adults are desperate to be infantilized so that the mommies and daddies of Big Government can save them from the inconvenience of disagreements.
In addition to being a disaster for a democracy that can thrive only when ideas and viewpoints can be freely and openly exchanged, this absurd overprotectiveness is not conducive to developing any adult abilities to engage in reasoned discussion. It should not be a surprise that we are saddled with many young adults who can do little but wail about their hurt feelings before crumpling into a weeping heap. The ability to deal with the inevitable bumps and bruises of a harsh world is severely lacking for many as they attempt to begin lives away from parental supervision, which results in a deficiency of adult efficacy, a crushing lack of self-confidence, and lives that are often defined by ongoing crises and crashes.
We want our lives to be poetry, but in reality they are dominated by the prosaic. Pay your bills. Do your laundry. Change the oil on your car. Meet your deadlines. Stay organized. Plan for problems. Wash the dishes. Floss. Successful adults figure this out rather quickly, and their expectations are tempered by a connection to real life responsibilities and an understanding of the consequences of failure.
Rather than promising people a life filled with freebies and do-overs provided by a mythical pot of tax money extracted from the wealthy, our governmental leaders should instead emphasize personal responsibility and the plain fact that adult life is many times an exercise in pain and perseverance—with no guarantees of success. We would all be a lot better off with less high-flown rhetoric and more tough-minded reality. Rather that campaigning in poetry, our politicians should engage in adult prose with voters about the world as it is—not as we might wish it to be. It might be a shock to many, but it also might be exactly what many need to hear and understand.