Saturday, August 21, 2010

Depressed Over Left-Dominated Politics? Let Dr. Bob Cheer You Up!

By Robert Weissberg

By nature I’m disinclined to offer psychological counseling but times do change, so let me offer some guidance to those depressed by today’s politics. Here’s the story. I regularly encounter dozens of clear-thinking, conservatively minded folk who are convinced that the sky is falling--Obama is about to impose Socialism, entitlement-driven national bankruptcy is months away, radical Muslims are about to conquer Europe and on and on. And I assume that for each face-to-face encounter, thousands more share these disheartening views. Make no mistake, this alarm is reasonable, horrific events are genuine and we certainly should fight back, but an objective assessment suggests that today’s often Left-dominated politics is not as catastrophic as believed.
Here’s why: malaise sufferers grossly exaggerate the Left’s impact on our personal lives. The Left’s manic politicking, even their occasional media-heralded victories, is not the end of our worlds. Good, right-thinking people have Houdini-like skills in avoiding the consequences of Lefty machinations, but unfortunately for our mental health we under-estimate our triumphs. Indeed, our often silent victories only drive our enemies to greater and usually futile activism which in turn, often brings even greater doom and gloom.
The road to recovery begins by recognizing differences in the personal importance of politics. For those on the Left plus radical Muslims, politics is paramount, the first go-to option; by contrast, for conservatives politicking is almost always subordinated to more personal concerns—family, earning a living ,church, hobbies, volunteering in a charity, socializing with friends, and otherwise avoiding the turmoil of civic engagement. This pattern is definitional since embracing state-centered solutions makes one a Leftie while Righties favor personal responsibility.  
Consider how this plays out in education. How can a parent react when junior is being fed nonsense at the local public school? Conservatives might relocate to a community with better schools, hire a tutor, check out an after-school “cram academy,” investigate possible web-based instruction, browbeat junior, offer lessons over the dinner table, try home schooling, visit the school’s principal and complain or just instruct one’s offspring on how to make the best of a bad situation. Those on the Left, by contrast, apply political pressure: hold boisterous rallies, file lawsuits, vote for candidates who promise bigger education budgets, keep junior home to protest dismal test scores and otherwise demand that government rescue them. And if these tactics fail, just keep repeating as if more noise will suffice. The different menus reflect ingrained ideological habits, not careful cost/benefit assessments of alternatives. Mothers picketing the school to protest “unfair” discipline might be better off personally making sure junior obeys the rules but marching just seems more “natural.” 
Illustrations abound. In health care conservatives endorse healthier habits and regular check-ups; Lefties demand “free” government health care as if “free” would promote better eating habits. If crime soars, conservatives flee to gated communities or buy guns; Lefties demand government eliminate crime by ameliorating root causes; for conservatives reducing foreign oil consumption means buying a fuel efficient but technologically pedestrian $17,00 Chevy Cruz while Lefties demand billions in government subsidies for a $41,000 Chevy Volts, an identical car except for engines though the Cruz is a bit roomier. Conservatives outraged over sky-rocketing taxes adjust their portfolios to tax free bonds, shift funds to overseas tax havens or otherwise take very private steps to minimize the newly inflicted tax bite. Personalized involvement even applies in foreign affairs via church volunteer missions (critical in many developing nations) or investing in stock funds targeting specific countries or regions e.g., for Africa, see here.  
Clearly, the singular element that separates these two ideological tendencies is their public quality. Lefties love the public arena, making a ruckus, marching and issuing demands, creating committees to save gay whales, decorating cars with bumper stickers and otherwise gratifying their exhibitionist urge. Needless to say, the mass media quickly gobbles this up. Great for action-addicted viewers. No New York City TV station will ignore the Rev. Al Sharpton parading noisy school children holding hand-written signs demanding that Mayor Bloomberg make them educated? Who wants to “waste” a mobile TV crew in some obscure Queens, NY neighborhood where young Koreans quietly sit in a storefront cram academy to boost SAT scores?     
This is not to say that conservatives are political shut-ins. They do have their public side as the Tea Party illustrates but this is hardly their normal modus operandi. One might even argue that the very idea of conservatives making a public commotion is attention-getting since it is out-of-character. Savvy conservatives also know that the public quickly tires of strident demonstrations so effectiveness requires judicious use. Accomplishment outshines yet one more opportunity to get one’s picture on the 6:00PM News.
Back to the therapy. It is not easy maintaining one’s sunny disposition when confronted with “the other side” seemingly monopolizing publicity while “our side” is neglected. We also have a masochistic appetite for sky-is-falling bad news via the web. This imbalance certainly has all the outward signs of imminent defeat. And it only makes matters worse when I explain that “our side” often steadfastly avoids publicity or at least speaking frankly. Who wants to admit to using off-shore banking or running an all-cash business to avoid Obama’s massive tax increases? In fact, many of the private tactics favored by conservatives are judged “bad” by the Left-leaning mass media. What parent, white or black, will confess to white flight when schools become dominated by anti-intellectual lower-class blacks? In other words, we seem apathetic while the other side in on a rampage.  
So here’s my therapeutic advice. Don’t calibrate political battles by who receives the most publicity. The correct measure is accomplishment, not publicity, and here the outcomes are more upbeat. Let the Lefties hold their parades to demand that Washington make them healthy, wealthy and wise. My bet is that twenty years from now most of these demonstrators, despite subsidized medical treatment, will still be as sickly as before while their children are still waiting for Washington bureaucrats to put knowledge into their under-utilized brains. Meanwhile, those depressed over this activism will be healthy, wealthy and wise thanks to personal ingenuity. Not perfect but hardly a disaster.
Let Dr. Bob conclude with some sound political advice. I am not suggesting that we abandon politics to the Left or lapse into dangerous denial. Oscar Wilde once said that socialism will never work since it took too many evenings and he was right. We cannot match the Left’s time-consuming political obsessions so we must choose our public battles carefully, especially when we move beyond voting and electioneering. Now for the Great Wisdom: decentralization is the fact of political life permitting us to thrive despite the Left’s statist mania. Sustaining political firewalls is critical though day-to-day issue-based politics often pushes this aside. One more time: differences in governance between North Dakota and California, Newark, NJ versus Minneapolis, MN is what permits conservatives to thrive while avoiding time-consuming, often futile Lefty style politics. Remember, it is not easy to escape horrific education if Washington totally dictates education policy. Ditto for escaping confiscatory taxes—we need places to hide.
In sum, the transitory issues of the day are important but we should not neglect the value of localism. It is our ability to escape Washington’s power, not out-mobilize the Lefties that permits our survival. Contributing Editor Robert Weissberg is emeritus professor of political science, University of Illinois-Urbana and currently an adjunct instructor at New York University Department of Politics (graduate). He has written many books, the most recent being “Bad Students, Not Bad Schools: How both the Right and the Left have American education wrong.” Besides writing for professional journals, he has also written for magazines like the Weekly Standard and currently contributes to various blogs.

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