“If a politician found he had cannibals among his constituents, he would promise them missionaries for dinner.” — H.L. Mencken
MANY of us are either hopeful about or frustrated with politics for the same reason: we believe it can solve society’s problems. Many of us believe that if we elect the “right” candidate with the “right” credentials, educational background and campaign platform then s/he would, for sure, do the right thing. And then, to quote Bob Marley, “every little thing gonna be all right.”
Most if not almost all voters say they support only the “right” candidates. And yet if we study history — and not just Google bits and pieces of it — we would likely realize that even though voters have been electing so many problem-solving candidates “since ever since,” so many political issues and problems from the past remain political issues and problems today.
“I am frustrated by what is happening to my Commonwealth but I am also angry. I am angry with the way we let politics interfere on employment, our economic system, our lives, our families and our freedoms.”
“The people…must…elect individuals who not only represent ‘academic literacy’ but most importantly are compassionate and undeniably sensitive to the cries and fundamental social, education and economic needs of our diversified community.”
“I find it extremely important to continue serving and aspiring for the efficient delivery of public services…. You deserve to be given the best possible Commonwealth…in which we can all work and live cooperatively and congenially as a community of people.”
“Better education. Better health care. Better economic opportunities. Better retirement benefits. Youth and experience that works.”
“Four years ago [they] promised to run a clean and honest government. As you know, there are all sorts of reports and allegations of fraud, bribery and kickbacks…. Allegations of corruption…are not only popular subjects of conversations among our people but are also regularly brought up by overseas visitors to our islands.”
“The public deserves better prices and not excuses,” a senatorial candidate said, referring to the price of leaded gasoline sold in the CNMI — $1.469 to $1.50 per gallon. (Worth about $3.80 today.) He said the price should be reduced. He promised “Leadership You Can Count On.”
Another candidate asked his opponent, “The people have the right and demand to know why did you hire most of your immediate family members in very high and important government positions with very high salaries? … By your refusal to answer…the people can only conclude you have no defense and therefore you are…guilty as charged! The people cannot afford anymore empty promises.”
Yes, these statements were made by previous candidates for office in the CNMI. When? It could be any election year really. But they were published 36 years ago by Variety whose front-page stories back then included a news item regarding a former elected official seeking political office. He and four of his relatives bought eight piglets from the Department of Natural Resources, “ahead of other people who had applied with DNR for piglets as long as eight months ago.” His campaign slogan was “For Clean, Honest and Open Government.”
That the campaign promises and even the heated rhetoric of the past should sound eerily familiar today is unsurprising. We live, to quote Gore Vidal, in the United States of Amnesia — i.e., the Planet Earth.
Even many if not most of the “modern solutions” proposed today have already been tried in the past…and have created other, and sometimes bigger, problems.
Ultimately, governance is not about solving problems — but choosing which problems we would rather have. Modern food production technology has, more or less, ended famine outside of war zones. But more food also means obesity and other lifestyle diseases. Welfare programs have provided timely assistance to those who need it. But it has also created welfare dependency. College scholarships mean more college graduates. But it also means a shrinking labor pool for certain vital occupations that do not require a college degree. The internet is the greatest repository of knowledge — and misinformation. (As comedian Ronny Chieng would put it, “Like, who knew all of human knowledge could make people dumber?” Incidentally, who do we consider “intelligent people”? Aren’t they usually the persons we agree with?)
The basic problem of “modern governance” is an old one: paying for the services/programs demanded by voters. And the key feature of governance then and now is that it is political and is run by politicians.
Of course, we do not want our politicians to be too political. (“Who are you calling a politician? Those are the other guys. My guy is a statesman/woman — a public servant!”) But when you’re in politics then everything is political, and that includes a politician’s denial that what s/he is doing is political.
Do I have a “solution” to propose? As I’ve said earlier, there’s no such thing. But like James Q. Wilson, I am “for a sober view of [humans] and [their] institutions that would permit reasonable things to be accomplished, foolish things abandoned, and utopian things forgotten. A sober view of [humanity] requires a modest definition of progress.” It means that we have to “try to learn more about what works, and in the process abandon our ideological preconceptions about what ought to work.”
But that’s quite a mouthful and won’t work as a campaign slogan.
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