Thursday, February 12, 2004

Fighting demons; the twisted role of the political shaman

Mark Dorroh

One of the silliest aspects of election rhetoric is the oft-repeated promise that candidates, if elected, will "fight" for us. Elected officials who spend all their time fighting are not what I want. What I want from my leaders is competent governance.

Unfortunately, it's not particularly exciting to declare, in a stump speech, "I'm going to Washington and competently govern for you!" Such a declaration would be truthful, even refreshing, but a guaranteed applause line it's not.

As anyone who has spent time observing career politicians knows, fighters seldom accomplish much beyond making inflammatory headlines. The leaders who get useful things done are the pragmatic idealists, driven by core beliefs but also aware that in a policy debate, neither side can (or should) get 100 percent of what it wants. Today's fighting politicians and their blinkered constituencies tend to ignore principles of rational discourse, instead wallowing in visceral reactions to real or perceived injustice. They burn with an outraged sense of entitlement and are contemptuous of mutually-respectful dialogue.

Combative, ultra partisan politicians feed upon the arrogant assumption, cherished by too many voters, that the folks on the other side of the issue have nothing of value to contribute to the discussion, so we must fight them, triumph over them and leave the field of battle with trumpets playing and ideologues braying.

Fighting, as a method of governance, is also distressingly devoid of ethical considerations. Fighters substitute rage for reason; their means of debate are the expression of righteous indignation, not compelling argument. Thus, "fighting politicians" have become the shamans of modern republican democaracy.

Shamans - the witch doctors indigenous to all primitive cultures - fight demons while currying favor with friendly spirits. A shaman whose tribe is in trouble has two basic missions: he must first identify the demon who is the source of the trouble, then engage it in battle and, hopefully, carry the day. He may enlist friendly spirits to assist him, but his first job is to name the demon.

The role of the shaman is so pervasive in human history precisely because primitive people don't understand that bad things happen to good people because reality is indifferent to the welfare of any single organism, even when that organism is one's own precious, irreplaceable self. When the rain doesn't fall and the crops wither, the primitive mind assumes the tribe has either lost favor with its gods or has engaged the attention of malignant spirits. That's when the shaman earns his bread and butter by naming and fighting the evil spirit or spirits who are to blame.

Modern shamans have modern demons to name and fight. Today's widespread and largely unchallenged belief that "special interests" are at the root of all evil in America is one prime example of the modern demon. Special interests have become the all-purpose scapegoat of contemporary American politics.

Special interests are (if the conventional wisdom of the doctrinaire Left and Right can be believed) out to rip you off, ship your sons and daughters off to be slaughtered in unjust wars, marginalize public expression of your religious beliefs, make every nation on earth hate America, discriminate against you and yours, murder your "pre-born" babies, export your jobs to other countries, destroy the institution of holy matrimony, poison your environment, impoverish your grandparents and entice your children into a life of vice and degradation.

So what is a special interest, and what makes it so scary? Upon closer investigation, we discover that all a "special interest" actually amounts to is a group of people with shared beliefs and/or means of earning a living who hire a spokesman to tell our leaders what effects new laws, regulations or tax code changes will have on them. The politicians I've talked to over the years say they use lobbyists primarily as a source of free research. The officeholder called to vote on a tricky and complex bill first acquires a position paper from the lobbyist of each interested group of citizens, then makes up his/her mind based on all available information - plus the values and principles he/she articulated to get elected in the first place.

This seems, at least to me, to hardly to qualify as anything approaching an intrinsically evil process.

The real problem with special interests is not fundamental to that process. Rather, the real problem occurs when government alters its mission from enforcing reasonable laws to legislating personal morality and/or redistributing honestly-earned wealth.

A government which has embraced those dubious missions is a government which will regularly be manipulated by the angriest minority or the most ruthless majority. That's when special interests morph from their role as rational adviser/advocates into smug, self-righteous petitioners seeking to use the power of government to bully fellow citizens into their version of utopia.

If we, the voters, would all get together and conspire to exclude government from the business of taking wealth from Citizen Group A and handing it over to Citizen Group B, or of trying to dictate matters of personal conscience (especially in regard to religious belief systems and human sexuality), the scary special interest groups would instantly lose their evil aspects and be blessedly returned to performance of their original missions; providing our leaders with vital, advocacy-based information.

Let's implore our politicians to give up their shaman's robes and masks, quit trying to name the demons and return government to the carefully limited role the Framers envisioned. Or, to put it another way, the next time a candidate promises to go to the halls of power and "fight for you," run, do not walk, to the ballot box and vote for his/her opponent, no matter what flavor of idology he/she may espouse. Do this often enough, and our twisted political shamans will finally begin to comprehend that what we want is not serial ideological dustups, but rather competent governance.

Then and only then will America be able to leave the "fighting" to our excellent professional military.

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