As long as presidential power grows, so will our obsession with it, and the people who occupy the Oval Office.
On my European excursions I’ve made it a habit of flipping through newspapers from Germany, Britain, and the good old U.S. of A. Lately and maybe belatedly, I’ve been struck by the sheer mendacity of politics on both sides of the pond. I don’t mean nasty little lies, fed by ambition (“I didn’t wipe my server; it’s the cleaning girl’s fault”), nor any of the stuff that earns you Pinocchios in the Washington Post. I mean deliberate falsehoods that are central to the operation of government—the “regime,” as Straussians are wont to say.
Every regime gets the lie it deserves. Stalinism was the Big Lie: it strutted its “working class rule” even as the actual workers rotted in the Gulag. Turns out, though, that advanced democracies have a lie of their own: money for nothing—and the chicks for free. And education for “free.” And health care for “free.” Bernie Sanders isn’t really running for President; his idea of the office boils down to chairmanship over the Committee for the Free Lunch. In fairness, though, it’s not just Senator Sanders. No politician of any standing dissents from the universal consensus that underpins our politics: let’s have a gigantic transfer state, and not pay for it. The notion that you can run a country like that is a delusion. And when everyone knows it to be a delusion and still peddles it, it becomes a lie.
European countries live that same lie, and another: the idea of a post-nationalist, postmodern, technocratic European Union. The project has failed in nearly every respect; it’s become one big, bold lie. The Greeks famously lied their way into the Euro; they got away with it because the powers-that-be wanted them to lie. Greece is now on its third bailout, engineered under treaties with a supposedly ironclad anti-bailout clause. Everyone knows that this won’t be the last bailout; the country will become a permanent ward of the EU. The politicians know that that voters know that they’re lying when they pretend otherwise; but still they pretend. We must, must have an “ever closer union”; there is no political question to which that is not the answer. EU governments can’t track the whereabouts of known terrorists and hordes of refugees and asylum seekers roam the continent—but national borders? That’s so nineteenth century.
Europe was never very big on forthrightness. The EU in particular is built on obfuscation, lest those pesky voters torpedo the project or mess with the technocrats who are doing such a fine job administering Greece, immigration, and other things. It’s a bit more distressing to witness this sort of politics stateside: we’re not supposed to have it. The authors of the Declaration of Independence professed “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind” and accordingly explained what they were doing, and why. The Federalist practically oozes candor, even on matters where you’d expect reassuring mumbling. (“This Constitution means a central government with virtually unlimited powers to tax. Do you want that?”) And the Constitution tries to institutionalize a candid politics. Checks and balances and the separation of powers are information-disclosing devices, among other things. It’s hard for politicians to conspire when they are given the means and the motives to rat on each other.
Our contemporary politics, in contrast, is decidedly un-candid. Witness a presidential campaign that teems with promises of more “free” stuff. That kind of politics is not just unsustainable. It is dishonorable, and it is dangerous: it breeds crackpots and demagogues—and they don’t tell the truth, either. It’s easy to say that we deserve better. But do we?