It is becoming difficult to watch the continuing dysfunction in Washington DC. Each new day brings with it some fresh manifestation of either incompetence, ignorance or tomfoolery, or in some cases, like the President’s press conference yesterday, all three. At some point you have to start asking some hard questions, like…what the hell is wrong with our government?
This is a non-partisan question. Readers of this space know my Libertarian leanings and the low opinion I have of the Democratic Party. But, I have displayed an equal distaste for the Republican alternative. The place we find ourselves in as a nation has many fathers, so what follows is not an indictment of merely the current President and his party, but rather the entire governing class. Trust me when I say, Democrats and Republicans in Washington have much more in common with each other than either of them have with us.
As an observer of politics for the past 40 years of my life, I have seen my share of incompetence, so in a sense, the presence of bumbling idiots in government isn’t exactly a news flash. But the level of such bumbling has risen exponentially over the past 10 years or so, sort of like the much hyped, global warming caused rising of the sea levels. Only this increase is actually measurable. Any fair-minded observer who has been paying attention can’t help but wonder if anyone in politics knows what they’re doing. From Colin Powell’s UN speech offering “proof” of weapons of mass destruction, all the way to President Obama’s “if you like your plan, you can keep your plan” fiasco, one is left with the creeping suspicion that the people at the highest levels of our government just aren’t that sharp. I have a theory.
In the 35 years after our Civil War, or the period from roughly 1870 through 1910, Americans turned against government. After all, it was the hot-blooded rhetoric of politics that had helped plunge the country into war in the first place. After the loss of nearly 600,000 Americans, the country was in no mood for it anymore. It was time to heal and time to make some money. Accordingly, the best and brightest began to go into business. Soon the industrial revolution gave rise to a new breed of man, the captain of industry. Men like John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Jay Gould, J.P. Morgan and Cornelius Vanderbilt rose to the top of the heep. At the same time, Americans were left with a long list of third stringers as Presidents. This was the era that gave us such notable chief executives as Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, Chester Arthur, and Grover Cleveland. These weren’t exactly intellectual heavyweights and consequently are largely forgotten by history. Since the juice of the country had flowed away from Washington, these men were known largely for doing nothing, and for a country that had barely survived a bloody civil war, “doing nothing” sounded pretty good.
What about today? Where are the best and brightest? Not in Washington DC. Any list of influential, transformative thinkers and doers begins with names like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg. At the top of anyone’s list of high achieving Americans would be names like Howard Schultz, Warren Buffett and Oprah Winfrey, not rubes like John Boehner, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. Silicon Valley is populated by hordes of extremely bright and highly motivated men and women making giant technological strides, while their contemporaries in Washington are writing unworkable, 3000 page laws that nobody reads or understands.
The big difference between the lightweights of the late 19th century and our lightweights is the fact that guys like Chester Arthur and James Garfield KNEW that they were lightweights. Our political leaders today from both Parties all think they are geniuses, and it is this hubris that is driving the country over a cliff. From perhaps the most unaccomplished, inexperienced, thinnest credentialed President in history all the way down to a plucky Alaskan governor thought smart and worthy enough to be a heartbeat away from the Presidency by a major American political party, the overwhelming conclusion that must be drawn is that our representatives just aren’t smart enough for the job.
Now, if only they knew that.