Aprés moi, le déluge

If there’s one thing we should all have learned from the recent past, it’s this: We live in a country with a broken political system.

Now, by recent past, I don’t just mean the past two years. Anyone who thinks the election of Barack Obama marked some sort of dramatic turning point in our political life is living in a world where only appearances matter. The election of Mr. Obama, a nice young man in no way qualified to be president, followed by eight years the election of George W. Bush, another nice young man, similarly unqualified.

Indeed, if we look back at the presidents we’ve chosen since Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, we can see a dramatic decline in the qualifications of the people to whom we’ve handed the keys to power. This goes for Congress, our courts and our statehouses, as well. When future historians come to write the history of the past 50 years, they will record a period of remarkable technological development, accompanied by a dramatic decline in the moral, intellectual and political life of the United States.

The fault will lie with our educational institutions, our media (both mainstream and anti-) and both major political parties. Mostly, though, it will lie with us, 320 million Americans who are squandering the legacy left us by generations of remarkable men and women who came from all quarters of the globe to build a nation that was strong, independent, just and free.

Somehow or other, starting around the time we waded into the rice paddies of Vietnam, this whole country stopped being serious about governing. It’s like we had all watched one too many Disney movies and drawn the conclusion that wishing can make it so.

Now, when I say we stopped being serious, I don’t mean that people stopped being passionate about politics. In fact, I mean exactly the opposite. We got more passionate – sometimes absurdly passionate – but passion is not the same thing as seriousness. Passionate people believe in all sorts of things: Political ideologies, economic systems, exclusively true religions.

Serious people believe in what works.

These days, whenever I hear someone ranting about politics, the thought that inevitably pops into my head is: Here’s another guy who thinks that passionate belief can create reality; that wishing changes things; that faith and hope can substitute for clear eyes and rational thought.

Childishness, of course. But given our overwhelmingly juvenile culture, that’s hardly surprising.

An example: Last month, American voters dealt a stinging blow to the President by electing a lot of Republicans who, among other things, feigned deep concern about the federal deficit.

Forthwith, these Republicans sat down with the President and agreed to a “compromise” in which each side agreed to keep all of its spending priorities – in return for sacrificing all of its fiscal concerns.

So we’ll have both the President’s new unemployment benefits, and the Republicans’ extension of the Bush tax cuts, plus, for good measure, reduced payments to the fiscally-troubled Social Security system.

I’m reminded of Louis XV of France, the weak-willed monarch who, having managed to outlive his great-grandfather (Louis XIV), inherited a system badly in need of reform and utterly failed to reform it. Louis is credited with the ominous saying, “Après moi, le déluge.”

Sure enough, after Louis came the deluge. He died in 1774, leaving the mess to his grandson, Louis XVI. The deluge was the French Revolution of 1789, in which Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antoinette, among many others, went to the guillotine.

Most people have a vague notion that the French Revolution was launched by starving peasants. Actually, it started when Louis XVI tried to raise new taxes to stabilize the budget of a nation on the verge of bankruptcy. The nobles, an essentially useless class who considered paying taxes beneath them, haughtily refused to pony up unless the King agreed to hand over complete political power to them.

The middle class, the economically dynamic part of society which would eventually lead France back to prosperity, rejected aristocratic rule, rallied the common people, and seized power in Paris. Many nobles fled abroad, pleading with their noble and royal relations to save France. Two kings sent armies to suppress the revolution, and that’s when the bloodbath began.

The French Revolution is a long, sanguinary story, but it began with two realities: France was bankrupt, and its leaders refused to take the necessary steps to balance its budget; and the monarch with the last decent chance to fix things threw up his hands and predicted that, after his death, things would hit the fan.

I’m not at all sure my generation will have the good sense to follow Louis XV’s example, dying off before things fall entirely apart. Which suggests that it might be time to take the leaders of both political parties to a figurative guillotine and start a little revolution of our own.

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