Commentary: A Government We Deserve or One We Need?

What people hear and want to hear is not always what they need to hear.

A critic of the French Revolution, Joseph de Maistre, is said to be first to proclaim that “a country gets the government it deserves.” The same observation actually was made much earlier by numerous figures in the Bible. And what was true about ancient rulers and kings is probably just as germane to democracies like the United States today.    

In general, people support leaders that tell them what they want to hear. But what people hear and want to hear is not always what they need to hear. Additionally, what they hear and accept is affected by standards of behavior, cultural norms, media and educational systems that are shaped and accepted by the ruling class. 

The results of the first two presidential primaries in Iowa and NH—in which Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders lead their respective parties—should be cause for unease.   Will we get “the government we deserve” rather than one we desperately need? It’s not just that the U.S. is in decline, with neither allies trusting us nor enemies fearing us. The country is broke and on a financial crisis trajectory, with national debt nearly doubling in eight years of Obama, matching the accumulated debt of the previous 219 years.

The ascendance of anti-establishment candidates Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump is surely attributable to citizens’ anger with the political establishment in both parties in Washington.   

The popularity of Bernie Sanders, an avowed socialist, is greatest among the demographic too young to remember the economic collapse of the Soviet Socialist motherland. It also reflects a U.S. educational system that has been failing to provide a cursory understanding of why the free market system succeeds and lifts the fortunes of those who embrace it, and why socialist systems lead to decline.    

Bernie calls himself a revolutionary and his plan starts with eliminating the private health insurance industry that employs half a million people, and replacing it with single-payer government-run healthcare that centralizes more power in Washington bureaucracies. The price tag of this “Medicare for all” would likely exceed $1.5 trillion annually. In addition, his infrastructure “Rebuild America Act” and tuition-free public universities would add another $200 billion in annual federal spending. Sanders’ policy director acknowledges that this massive public sector expansion is unlikely to be covered with proposed marginal federal income tax rates approaching 60% and a “Robin Hood” securities transaction tax. In short, it’s more debt and dependency under Bernie.      

The consummate political outsider, self-funded and beholden to no one, is of course Donald Trump—best known for his flamboyant reality TV series, The Apprentice. Donald’s claim to have become a conservative in the pattern of Ronald Reagan is at variance with his recent past. Only a few years ago, not only did The Donald say, “I probably identify more as a Democrat,” but he put his money where his mouth was, collectively giving more than $250,000 to the Democratic party of New York, the Clinton Foundation, and also to Hillary Clinton’s senatorial campaign. Donald says making such political contributions was necessary to protect his business interests. 

But his record of inconsistency is not limited to the past. Recently, Donald praised Vladimir Putin as a great leader for Russia who can play a constructive role in the Middle East. In the end, Donald Trump’s braggadocio, repetitive display of small-minded petulance, and bully-in-the-schoolyard temperament reveal a character not only unpresidential, but also one unable to deliver on his trademark slogan to “Make America Great Again.”

Hillary Clinton has been considered the heir apparent of the Democratic Party. Her campaign pledges to keep the main tenets of the Obama agenda intact: from protecting and expanding Obamacare to ending the mass incarceration of minority criminals and continuing the war on fossil fuels.

The problem for Hillary is that her proclivity for deceit and secrecy, played out on a grand scale while Secretary of State, has now caught up with her. She lied about both the reasons for the Benghazi terrorist attack and her handling of classified and top secret information through her private unsecure email server—an unprecedented action that likely compromised U.S. interests and personnel abroad. Hillary’s reckoning with indictment may soon come if the complete email record during her tenure as Secretary of State shows political favors to foreign entities who also made contributions to Clinton Foundation.    

So there you have it in the current frontrunners: a revolutionary socialist, a brash billionaire reality TV/crony business mogul with no foreign policy experience, and a serial liar from a scandal-prone political family who operates on the edge and above the law.

When they drafted the Constitution, the founders made no assumptions about a highly informed electorate. But they did trust that citizens’ common sense grounded in morality from Christian beliefs and orientation would guide their choices at the ballot box.

Unlike the Democratic Party which has no visible backup candidate, the GOP fortunately has a deep bench of alternatives to present frontrunner Donald Trump. As the primaries progress, let’s hope common sense and a preference for propriety channels anger into constructive thinking and the choice of a nominee who can not only win in November, but also deliver what is needed at this critical time in history.

Scott Powell is senior fellow at the Discovery Institute in Seattle and managing partner of RemingtonRand. Email him at [email protected]

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