David Brooks’ column today, Sin and Taxes, is excellent. In particular:
For centuries, American politicians did not run up huge peacetime debts. It wasn’t because they were unpartisan or smarter or more virtuous. It was because they were constrained by a mentality inherited from the founders. According to this mentality, a big successful nation exists in a state of equilibrium between its many factions. This equilibrium is fragile because we are flawed and fallen creatures and can’t quite trust ourselves. So all of us, but especially members of the leadership class, should practice self-restraint. Moral anxiety restrained hubris (don’t think your side possesses the whole truth) and self-indulgence (debt corrupts character).
This ethos has dissolved, on left and right. The new mentality sees the country not as an equilibrium, but as a battlefield in which the people, who are pure and virtuous, do battle against the interests or the elites, who stand in the way of the people’s happiness.
The ideal leader in this mental system is free from moral anxiety but full of passionate intensity. This leader pushes his troops in lock step before the voracious foe. Each party has its own version of whom the evil elites are, but both feel they’ve more to fear from their enemies than from their own sinfulness.
Brooks says that the ethos of choice right now is in the “new mentality” of the country as battlefield, not equilibrium. I’d refine that by saying that the ethos of nationwide political leadership has always held our country to be a battlefield but we’ve addressed that reality by making leadership choices that prioritized equilibrium over taking one’s sour grapes and hurling them back at what’s been built over more than 200 years until it’s destroyed and you can replace it with whatever you prefer.
Unfortunately, when political figures who prefer hurling over healing exploit conditions so that voters support hurling over healing too, equilibrium looks pretty unattainable – even if more necessary than ever.