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You’ve heard of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, the approach to religion that sees God as a heavenly Dr. Phil, only to be consulted when we have a problem, which He’s supposed to solve, but otherwise Someone we would prefer would stay out of our lives? Well, Jacob Weisberg suggests, in so many words, that we Americans have this same lazy, infantile approach to politics, which is why Washington won’t make the hard choices necessary to straighten out our fiscal house. Excerpt:
The more compelling explanation is that the American public lives in Candyland, where government can tackle the big problems and get out of the way at the same time. In this respect, the whole country is becoming more and more like California, where ignorance is bliss and the state’s bonds have dropped to an A- rating (the same level as Libya’s), thanks to a referendum system that allows the people to be even more irresponsible than their elected representatives. Middle-class Americans really don’t want to hear about sacrifices or trade-offs–except as flattering descriptions about how ready we, as a people, are, or used to be, to accept them. We like the idea of hard choices in theory. When was the last time we made one in reality?
I don’t mean to suggest that honesty is what separates the two parties. Increasingly, the crucial distinction is between the minority of serious politicians in either party who are prepared to speak directly about our choices, on the one hand, and the majority who indulge the public’s delusions, on the other. I would put President Obama and his economic team in the first group, along with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Republicans are more indulgent of the public’s unrealism in general, but Democrats have spent years fostering their own forms of denial. Where Republicans encourage popular myths about taxes, spending, and climate change, Democrats tend to stoke our fantasies about the sustainability of entitlement spending as well as about the cost of new programs.
Our inability to address long-term challenges makes a strong case that the United States now faces an era of historical decline. Our reluctance to recognize economic choices also portends negative effects for the rest of the world. To change this story line, we need to stop blaming the rascals we elect to office and start looking to ourselves.
You’re wondering where the “moralistic” comes in, perhaps? Over the weekend, I listened to a portion of an old James Davison Hunter interview on Mars Hill Audio Journal, in which the UVA scholar introduced his early Nineties book, “Culture Wars.” Hunter said that even though we’re a far more secular country today than we were at the beginning, we still haven’t left behind our Puritanism. Both left and right, he says, see politics as a moral battleground, where to do anything but completely vanquish the other side is seen as somehow falling short of our high moral calling. This explains why so much American political rhetoric, from both parties, is so filled with moral language. But in terms of MTP (Moralistic Therapeutic Politics), it also highlights why even though we all like to indulge in moral rhetoric when it comes to our pet issues, we abandon moral seriousness when it comes to perhaps the gravest threat facing our viability as a nation: our inability to learn how to live within our means.
We are happy to be moralistic, as long as it’s the Others who need moral reform. But when it’s all of us, and when someone in government proposes that we need to stop thinking of government in therapeutic terms, and instead to “repent” (so to speak) of our something-for-nothing mentality, which is driving us into a bottomless pit of debt? Not so much.