I knew a man who owned a house in an upscale suburb, and instead of maintaining a carefully manicured front yard, he planted sweet corn in it.
Strange — but why shouldn’t he have a garden like everybody else? And why shouldn’t it be corn? Why should anybody assume that a little strip of cropped grass is the badge of middle class respectability, just because hundreds of years ago English aristocrats maintained enormous parks of such stuff? Corn is much more beautiful. And useful!
The man clearly had reason on his side. But aren’t you thinking, “No amount of money would make me grow corn in my front yard?”
If you’re a Washington Republican, you’re free to campaign against Obamacare or endorse schemes to reduce the deficit or bewail government regulation, so long as such advocacy is without prospect of success.
That’s the way I think too — but why? Presumably, it’s because I know that my neighbors — most of whom are utter strangers, whose lives have no interest to me at all — would disdain me, and I would suffer a loss of status, at least in my own mind. It would be worse if my colleagues and friends got wind of it and disdained me also, or just thought I was crazy.
Now, picture a conservative political figure, a member of the Republican Party — congressman, senator, senior staff employee. He (or it may be she) identifies with what class of people? People who live in small towns in New Mexico and plant corn in their front yards? No, he does not, even if he comes from New Mexico. This professional inhabitant of Washington identifies with people who graduated from important colleges, people who eat at stylish restaurants, people who know what positions the EU takes, people who consult for things called NGOs or serve on the boards of banks, people who spend Sunday mornings reading the New York Times, thereby representing the height of intellectual culture. He does not identify with Pentecostals, people who wear shirts with their names over the pocket, people who drink Budweiser, people whose factories are about to close, people who wait tables while they’re attending trade school, or any other people who voted Republican. The person I have in mind is burdened by a $2,000,000 mortgage, contracted because “there’s no other way to live in Washington.” He would rather die than come to the office in a Hawaiian shirt, or wearing a MAGA cap.
The people you dine with in Washington don’t care. They think it’s just the price of doing business.
This publicly concerned American may be a trust-fund baby, or he may be an incarnation of Jay Gatsby, the kind of person who wants to have been a trust-fund baby, but the effect is nearly the same. Status is all in all to him. In his mind, a veneer of culture (so called) and professionalism (so called) is worth a hundred times more than the world from which he came and the political values that allegedly summoned him to Washington.
If you’re a Washington Republican, you’re free to campaign against Obamacare or endorse schemes to reduce the deficit or bewail government regulation, so long as such advocacy is without prospect of success; the rubes back home may care, but the people you dine with in Washington don’t. They think it’s just the price of doing business. Your staff doesn’t care, either; they majored in Poli Sci like everyone else.
The question is whether you care. Maybe you did at some time. But now you find yourself in an embarrassing situation, because now you have the chance to do something with your political ideas. You have the chance to end all these government programs you’ve been promising to end. But you just can’t bring yourself to do it. If you think for a moment about actually, seriously, attempting to reduce the growth rate of the NEH or the NEA or Amtrak or anything in the government, you feel that if you did, you couldn’t face the people at the next cocktail party. You couldn’t face your interns the next morning — even if you’ve never succeeded in remembering their names. They wouldn’t say it out loud, but you know what they’d be saying to one another behind your back. You’ve heard them saying it about other people. “Knuckle dragger” would be the nicest term.
You can’t face that. What you are able to face is the mainstream media, which will always proclaim you a courageous statesman if you betray your constituents and your political party. After all, every proposal for change has something wrong with it. There’s always a Section F, Paragraph 14a, about which you can hold a press conference, declaring that you cannot, in good conscience, vote for a healthcare reform that would prevent the stepchildren of soldiers wounded in battle from receiving free measles vaccinations. The question isn’t whether the reform is beneficial, or whether your constituents favor it, or whether you and your party were elected by advocating it. The question is whether you lose social status or gain it. Which will it be?
Now you find yourself in an embarrassing situation, because now you have the chance to do something with your political ideas.
Like conservatives and modern liberals, libertarians tend to explain human behavior by reference to an extraordinarily short list of motives. The usual suspects are money, power, envy, hatred, and sex. The result is that these explainers of human life are continually perplexed by some very common human actions.
A notable instance is the inability of Congressional Republicans to pass any of the Republican president’s key proposals. It’s not that they fear a loss of power, campaign contributions, or bribes. If they voted their alleged convictions, they would gain immensely more power, and enjoy an immensely larger share of the money that ordinarily accompanies power. They might lose the contributions of the Chamber of Commerce, but it’s amazing how small most political donations really are. And they would get others, while avenging themselves royally on their envied and hated enemies. As for the sex motive, I’m not sure that it’s easier to get sex as a liberal than it is as a conservative, but I am sure that the ordinary person with pretensions to gentility would rather die than face the day when his daughter comes home from Wellesley and demands to know why, as her professors suggest, he’s a fascist.
If you’re in Congress, you’ll cling to your seat no matter what you do — you’re likelier to die before the next election than you are to lose it. But loss of status among the nice people you know, or do not know, would be unendurable.
Unless, of course, you actually believe in the political ideas you espouse. Probably, however, they’re just your way of gaining enough status to enable you to renounce them.