Americans are shaken by government’s inability to function.
Ebola is causing such anxiety that even alarm over an outbreak of enterovirus D-68 — far more prevalent and linked to the deaths of at least four children — has been crowded out. Ditto news of the Islamic State’s rampage, a stock-price rollercoaster, and the impending midterm elections. Understandably, two concerns dominate the public discussion.
One is incompetence. Lulled into ever more dependence on government by the metastasis of regulation in what used to be the realm of private action, Americans are shaken by Washington’s inability to function. It is bungling elementary tasks. There is a sense of unraveling, a sense that officials are not merely out of their depth in addressing problems but incapable of spotting the problems in the first place — or, even worse, responsible for creating the very problems that then explode into crises.
Intimately related is the other concern: dishonesty. People expect politicians to spin and, at times, to out-and-out lie. I’ve been contending for a while now that our politics are no longer rational but tribal. Being right is secondary to being on the “right” side, as that side is perceived by the popular culture. That culture has largely tuned out the news and is swayed more by character assassination than by linear, fact-based argument. Official dishonesty is the natural result. When it is more important that “our side” wins than that the sensible thing be done, it is to be expected that the partisans, especially those in power, will say whatever they need to say to get through the news cycle. After all, fewer people than ever care about the news part of the news cycle; they care about the drama and their sympathies will be with their heroes — the fibs told to escape the latest jam are more admired for craftiness than condemned as breaches of trust.
Still, as we’ve previously observed, there is a breaking point. You can only abide politics as soap opera for so long because politics is actually about real life and real stakes. Reality cannot be scripted. Therefore, politics cannot forever be stage-managed as a “narrative” with “optics,” a daily show focused on how the lead character is affected by the latest crisis.
At a certain point, the reality of the crises hits us, and hits close to home. Am I threatened? Am I going to get sick? If I do get sick, am I going to have health coverage and the doctor I trust? Is the government doing its best to make sure I am not infected? Or shot? Or bombed? Or beheaded?
Where do we get the answers to these questions? From the government we’ve grown to depend on. And now the answers are so purposely, patently, and pervasively false, it suddenly seems as if nothing can be trusted — as if, even as our perils intensify, our government erects another house in its Potemkin village.
Of course you can keep your health coverage, and your doctor. And we’ll cover everyone while your premiums plummet. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda is “decimated” and these Islamic State guys are just the jayvee team. In fact (fact?), they’re not even Islamic — although they may not be quite as “secular” as the Muslim Brotherhood. Just extremists. (Extreme about what? Don’t ask.) Jihad is just a “purification of the self” . . . or, at most, “workplace violence.” Benghazi? A spontaneous “protest” incited by a video. The president was not told it was a terrorist attack . . . except by the secretary of defense right after it started — long before he responded by . . . going to Vegas, where he promptly announced al-Qaeda was “on the path to defeat.” Still, rest assured that the State Department’s top priority is the safety of American personnel . . . although we did reduce security in Benghazi after our facility was bombed. And rest assured that the Justice Department would never ever let guns walk . . . except for the thousands its Fast and Furious program transferred to violent gangs — who’ve used them in who knows how many crimes, including the murder of a Border Patrol agent. Still, at least there’s “not a smidgen of corruption” at the IRS, where citizens are harassed, evidence keeps disappearing, and the official at the center of it all takes the Fifth to avoid giving incriminating testimony. No matter. Just take heart that Ebola is not coming to the United States . . . um, well, if it does come there will be no outbreak . . . but, er, if there is an outbreak, we have careful protocols and health-care professionals fully trained to deal with it . . . and even if the protocols don’t work and the professionals don’t have adequate training, we’ll have a rigorous monitoring program for anyone who is exposed . . . or maybe a self-monitoring program for people who will isolate themselves . . . unless, of course, we tell them to go ahead and hop on a plane. Well, look, at least we can promise there won’t be a “serious” outbreak.
If you say so.
The shocking competence gap and the cavernous honesty gap — brought to you by the “most transparent administration in history” — make our heads spin as we careen from debacle to government-induced debacle. In the tumult, we can miss the main point: Why do we have a federal government?
Its purpose is to safeguard the American people and pursue our interests in the world, not to solve the world’s problems on our dime and, occasionally, by using us as laboratory mice. As free people, we can try to save the planet. The federal government, however, was not created to do it for us, much less to coerce us into implausible “humanitarian” schemes that always manage to line some crony’s pocket. National interest is our government’s only reliable compass, yet it has been discarded.
It is a short step to incompetence when you lose sight of what you are expected to be competent at accomplishing. It is an even shorter step to mendacity for a ruling class that is schooled to believe the country is fatally flawed and, thus, that the pursuit of our national interests is evil. It turns out that when real crises rivet their attention, the rubes still expect the government to protect and defend them. At that point, the government must either attend to those basic duties, or lie.
This government has made its choice.
First published on National Review online and reposted with author’s permission.
— Andrew C. McCarthy is a policy fellow at the National Review Institute. His latest book is Faithless Execution: Building the Political Case for Obama’s Impeachment.