The Outstater: OK, Now Let’s Try Political Character

November 5, 2014

POLITICAL UNITY is perhaps the most impossible of human goals. There is no combination of policies on the table in front of us that would achieve it. But the Devil, as a new GOP leadership will soon discover, loves an impossible task. He will have his snare and compromises ready.

A veteran political observer, William Murchison, has a strategy for that. He suggests Republican not put their hope in finely calculated policy initiatives or even parliamentary maneuver. He suggests selecting leaders who embody the American character rather than the Washington one.

“The political apparatus — a well-paying, prestige-endowing enterprise — pays and praises men and women who promise to do the impossible. But the strength of any peaceable, prosperous, self-sustaining society lies in the character of its people — not in laws that, at their best and wisest, merely reflect that character.”

Murchison goes on to say that politicians today do not teach the important things. Rather, they are salesmen of the impossible, “looking for new benefits to tout and new dangers to expose and warn against as they volunteer to fix everything for us.”

Dr. Stephen M. King, an adjunct scholar of this foundation, has said much the same in articles for us over the years. His work in political science predicts that the just-elected crop of politicians will discover “they aren’t facing policy problems so much as spiritual ones.”

Dr. King’s spiritual impetus is directed more to the motivation of civil service in this context than to a Divine Creator. And when we define “spiritual” thus broadly — an unconcern for material values or sinecure — we can see the cumulative abdication, Republican and Democrat, that is Washington or, for that matter, Indianapolis.

What did it for me, though, was a weekend viewing of a classic Western parody, specifically the scene in “Blazing Saddles” where Mel Brooks as Gov. William J. Le Petomane exhorts 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!”

Brooks, for comedic purposes, was rejecting character for posture. Hoosiers have been making a similar choice for a generation now but without the humor. The profile of the typical legislator gradually changed from a friend and neighbor sincerely representing our interests to an attorney perfunctorily relating those interests for a fee.

We now have lost any expectation that officialdom shares our moral or even political convictions. Such amoral representation, however diverse, cannot sustain a constitutional republic. So says Washington Post columnist George Will, who would revive the call for term limits on that basis alone:

“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 elected representatives come to think of their jobs as precious, they come to eschew any action, however critical, that would endanger their retention — particularly if it involves standing up for a constituency with more than words. There is a need, you see, to protect us not only from those who would abuse power but also from those who would merely sit on it.

So wave election or not, Republicans would be wise to insist that the goals of this next political cycle be based on character in public office, about serving and representing others — not, in the words of Dr. King, “about partisan wrangling to advance a career or even taming that perpetual bureaucratic beast.”

Otherwise, they too will find themselves in the shoes of a Barack Obama — facing one crisis after another, from terrorism to Ebola, joining Gov. Le Petomane in making policy off the cuff, in appealing to the Holy Underwear.

— Craig Ladwig


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