Off the Cuff: November 2010

The changing face of politics

I’ve been pretty cranky lately about the midterm elections and the venomous advertising that goes with them, the recession with no end in sight, and all the rest of it. Perhaps it’s my age and the fear that our country will never be the same again.

And I can’t shake the notion of how radically politics has changed. At one time, politics was a noble career; politicians weren’t perfect, of course, but most of those in the public sector were decent and honest. We had statesmen who actually solved the nation’s problems. Where are today’s wise men? Politics has become a whore’s business, with reelection the only goal.

If misery loves company, I have plenty of it. In a recent issue of Time magazine, journalist Joe Klein wrote an essay after spending almost a month traveling the country. He got a real flavor of the frustration and anger Americans are feeling.

“I found the same themes dominant everywhere,” Klein writes, “a rethinking of basic assumptions, a moment of national introspection. There was a unanimous sense that Washington was broken beyond repair. But the disgraceful behavior of the financial community, and its debilitating effects on the American economy over the past 30 years, was the issue that raised the most passion, by far, in the middle of the country.”

Klein writes that he’s haunted by a story Paul Volcker told him. Back in the ’80s, when Volcker was chairman of the Federal Reserve, a Ph.D. in aeronautical engineering at Princeton asked him to recommend a Wall Street firm he should work for. Volcker instead suggested that the engineer work for Boeing. The engineer said that Boeing would pay about $50,000 to start, with a ceiling of $90,000. “I can make that overnight on Wall Street,” the engineer said.

So instead of creating new products, he went off to make deals.

No wonder, then, that, as Klein writes, “There is a visceral sense that the financial community’s fundamental purpose has been perverted. It has made a killing off the death of American manufacturing; it has drained our best young minds away from industry and into the creation of new products that … haven’t added anything to our GDP.”

We’ve reached the point, Klein realized on his trip, where we’re questioning each other’s values, as an every-man-for-himself mind-set has taken over. Is it now okay to default on a mortgage? A third of Americans say yes, which is a fundamental shift in national integrity from a generation ago.

We now know that the changing of the guard in Washington — despite the blather of politicians and media about the importance of the midterm elections — solves nothing. Klein writes that most Americans are “convinced the financiers have purchased the silence and acquiescence of both [political] parties.” So we don’t even believe it’s possible that Washington can fix this mess.

I keep thinking back to something a local Congressman bragged about not long ago. He told an editor at this magazine, “No one in Washington votes their conscience.”

Of course not. Politics is far too important to do what is right for the country.

More than anything — beyond the frustration and anger I share with many Americans — our national mood makes me profoundly sad. What stands at risk, it seems to me, is our idea of country itself. Much has been said about a declining America. What Joe Klein found is deeply disturbing, because it seems as if average citizens no longer believe in the idea of a united people heading somewhere collectively, with a shared faith in the future. And without that faith, where are we headed?