Outstater: Holy Underwear, Let’s Make Some Policy

October 7, 2014

A FRIEND in the political science department at Taylor University argues that Indiana politicians have a spiritual problem, not a policy problem. Those of us in the policy-review business understandably have resisted this contention — until now.

A weekend viewing of a classic Western parody brought me around. It was the scene in Blazing Saddles where Mel Brooks as Gov. William J. Le Petomane is exhorting his sycophants to action:

“Holy Underwear! Sheriff murdered! Innocent women and children blown to bits! We have to protect our phony baloney jobs here, gentlemen! We must do something about this immediately!”

Governor Le Petomane, the Taylor professor might say, is rejecting spiritual solutions for policy solutions, in his case the cynical calculations of a villainous attorney general.

Hoosiers have been making a similar choice since, coincidentally, the movie came out. That was when the profile of the typical legislator began to change. We began sending men and women to the statehouse to represent us not as friends and neighbors but as attorneys and accountants.

And as legislative remuneration improved, this new model of legislator began to think of his job not as part-time public service but as full-time indoor work — not only the best job he ever had but also the best job he ever would have.

The spiritual impetus, you see, is directed more to the motivation of civil service than to a Divine Creator. And when we thus define “spiritual” broadly — an unconcern for material values — we can see the cumulative spiritual abdication that is our government. Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal gets it:

“The public figure literally says, ‘Prepare my talking points,’ and the public says, ‘He’s just reading talking points.’ It leaves everyone feeling compromised. Public officials gripe they can’t break through the cynicism. They cause the cynicism.”

Somewhere along the line we lost any expectation that officialdom shares our moral or even political convictions. Now we are at the point where the professor’s position can be argued as a purely political one — that is, this kind of representation will not sustain a constitutional republic.

So says Washington Post columnist George Will, who would revive the call for term limits on that basis alone. His arguments directed at Congress on a national issue can be as easily directed at Indianapolis on other, local issues:

“Congress increasingly attracts people uninterested in reversing its institutional anemia. They are undeterred by — perhaps are attracted by — the fact that they will not be responsible for important decisions such as taking the nation into war. And as Congress becomes more trivial, its membership becomes less serious. It has an ever-higher portion of people who are eager to make increasingly strenuous exertions to hold offices that are decreasingly consequential.”

For as Indiana legislators came to think of their jobs as precious, they came to eschew any action, however critical, that would endanger sinecure — particularly if it involves standing up for a constituency. Term limits are needed to protect us not only from those who would abuse power but from those who would merely sit on it.

And at this point in any scold of the political class, it’s a good idea to ask H.L. Mencken to pile on:

“I propose that the men who make our laws be chosen by chance and against their will, instead of by fraud and against the will of all the rest of us, as is now. Place the names of all the men eligible in each assembly district into a hat — or, if no hat can be found that is large enough, into a bathtub — and delegate a blind moron, preferably of tender years, to draw out one.”

Term limits and lottery selection, though, are too edgy for most of us. Better to insist in our political donations and activity that spirituality in public office be about serving and representing others — not about partisan wrangling to advance a career or even taming the eternal bureaucratic beast.

Otherwise, we will find ourselves in one crisis after another, from budgets to Ebola, joining Gov. Le Petomane in making policy off the cuff, in  appealing to the Holy Underwear.

— Craig Ladwig

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