Politics as Substance Abuse

Two things happened yesterday that suddenly came together in my head this morning on my drive in to work.

The first was a conversation my wife and I had about someone we know, who is a recovering alcoholic. She said, “whatever is most advantageous to him at any particular moment, that’s what he thinks is true.” And I looked over at her and said, “well, substance abuser…”

The second was that I read Three Predictions for Obama’s America at ReasonOnline. This section struck me:

1. America’s political and pundit class will go through a clinical bout of ideological amnesia that will be dizzying and appalling for those of us with memories of life before January 2009.

This happens virtually every time a new president, and certainly a new party, takes unified control of the government. On a host of issues—including government spending, regulation, and especially foreign policy—you can expect to see Republican officeholders and their champions in the press rediscover their inner-small-government souls and rail about how Obama and the Democrats are budget-busting socialists desperate to start what vice-presidential candidate Bob Dole once declaimed as “Democrat wars.”

On the flip side, expect Democrats to start rattling sabers like the did under the Mad-Bomber-in-Chief Bill Clinton, who was quite happy to dispatch planes and bombs wherever and whenever he felt necessary or threatened by a domestic situation. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is the template here of what reason‘s Matt Welch identified as “temporary doves,” that is, folks whose taste for war is highly dependent on party affiliation.

Obama, who is certainly something of a “stealth candidate” (to use an election-night phrase from Fox News’ and NPR’s Juan Williams), has never been shy about asserting his bellicosity. He’s against “stupid” wars, don’t you know, which gives him plenty of latitude to prosecute what he considers smart ones (and conflicts necessary to prove that he’s no George McGovern). And here’s a Canadian dollar that says that Obama’s withdrawal plan from Iraq is precisely the one recommended by Gen. Petraeus.

Similarly, he will almost certainly follow the domestic policy trajectory of one George W. Bush by increasing spending (he’s already promised that today we spend, tomorrow we scrimp), increasing regulation, and increasing interventions large and small into the economy. The main difference will be that all this new stuff comes at the end of the Bush bender. And that Obama and his defenders will swear that they are radically changing course from the past eight years when in fact they will continue in the same grim direction, full speed ahead, Mr. Emanuel.

Obama’s conservative and Republican Party detractors will animate the corpse of Ronald Reagan and weep many crocodile tears about the end of the free enterprise system that they somehow missed out on during the GOP turn at the helm. Bailouts that were “reluctantly and sadly” necessary under Bush, to use Newt Gingrich’s phrase (hilariously uttered mere hours before the House GOP scuttled the plan), will be unendurable socialist slights under Obama. At least the second half of that statement will be true.

Oh, and all that liberal fretting over the singular abuse of executive power, domestic surveillance, and the like, under Bush-Cheney? That’s going to disappear faster than the Lackawanna Six, regardless of what Obama does (and don’t expect him to renounce any of Bush’s power grabs once he’s sworn into office). If the topic resurfaces (and it will), look for conservatives to have their knickers in a twist this time around.

[Emphasis added]

Whatever is most advantageous to them at any particular moment, is true.

Think about that for a second.

Lets look at some classic substance abuse symptoms, shall we?

  1. If the drug is expensive, the addict will spend all their free time getting money to pay for it. Campaign fund raising. Check.
  2. The addict will use and abuse all their relationships, telling anyone whatever they want to hear, to maintain their access to the drug. Pandering to special interests. Check.
  3. If they cannot get their drug of choice, they will switch to a similar drug, like heroin addicts guzzling cough syrup. Congressmen turning into lobbyists. Check.
  4. A self-pitying “look what you made me do mentality,” also called an “external locus of control.” Mistakes were made. The pressures of office drove me to pay for that hooker. Everything is the fault of Democrats/Republicans/special interests/commie infiltrators. Check.

Lord Acton’s saying is obviously a truism: Power tends to corrupt. And absolute power corrupts absolutely. And a cursory look at our political class — elected and bureaucratic — shows us that a very large percentage is corrupted. We have a government mostly made up of power-addicts.

We’ve had a lot of non-addicts in high office in this country, who could step into power and then walk away from it when they were done — mostly Presidents, limited in office by tradition and then by Constitutional Amendment to only a few years. But throughout our history, especially in Congress, the addicts have increasingly been the majority.

To fix this, we should look for ways to discourage the addicts and encourage non-addicts.

The most obvious way to discourage an addict is to limit the strength of the substance they can get at. An oxycontin addict is still a screwup, but isn’t likely to take himself and everyone around him down as fast as a heroin addict. In government, this means that we limit the power of the federal government. Actually, the federal government is supposed to be pretty limited, but back in the New Deal the Supreme Court pretty much gave Congress the power to affect anything it wanted, and Congress passed laws giving the Executive Branch the power to regulate pretty much anything. So either we pass an amendment saying “no, really, the Commerce Clause means interstate commerce and nothing else” (good luck) or we convince the Supreme Court that they made a mistake seventy years ago and they need to start steering back toward a stricter construction.

Another way to discourage the addict is to restrict the duration of their exposure. Bars close for the night so alcoholics can’t stay there drinking all night. In some states, liquor stores are closed on Sunday. This is not really terribly effective. In government, term limits might possibly help, but as long as Congressmen can become lobbyists, or as long as ex-Presidents can still be influential in their party committees, it won’t really work.

We need to look for non-addictive personalities and encourage them to run for office. The non-addictive personality is one who can partake of an addictive substance without any tendency to become addicted. The person who can drink socially for years, sometimes to excess but usually not, but never becomes an alcoholic. The person who tries cocaine once or twice but never gets into it. The person who gets prescribed Vicodin for a broken leg but doesn’t finish their prescription (much less try to get more).

In the political arena, maybe we need to look for people who got elected to their city council for a couple terms and then went back to running their business. Or have been in their state senate (in most states a part-time job) for years but have never talked about running for higher office.

We can’t always identify those people and convince them to run for Congress or the Presidency. We’ll probably be stuck with the self-promoting egotists that make up the first-time candidate class we have now. But I think there are some ways to winnow out the addictives.

Since drugs and alcohol are the addictive substances we’re most familiar with, I’d much rather vote for a candidate who says, “hell, yes, I tried drugs, but I didn’t like them” or “I used drugs off and on in college but haven’t in decades,” rather than one who insists they’ve, well, never inhaled.

As usual, it’s up to us, the voters, and we’ll get the government that we deserve. If we’re a nation of addicts ourselves, latched permanently onto the Federal teat, then it stands to reason that we’ll elect a co-dependent government of addicts who’ll promise us our fix, anything, as long as we’ll give them theirs.

On the other hand, if we’re really a nation of self-sufficient individuals like we tell ourselves, then we need to get off our ass and stage a much-belated intervention.


3 thoughts on “Politics as Substance Abuse

  1. chrisrnps

    Congrats on the new political blog! In order to make it an official political blog, you need a semi-mocking “Shorter __________” synopsis of a post. So here goes.

    Shorter B.L.:

    “Look out! Here’s a list of things Obama might do! (It’s, gee whiz, exactly what he’s been saying he’s going to do in one book and two years of campaigning). After the unregulated structures and systems we supported led to the Great Depression, the New Deal totally sucked, and we’ve been working to dismantle it ever since. Good thing that all the post-New Deal deregulation efforts of the Republicans didn’t lead to another economic…oh, wait. Anyway, politicians are addicted to power like drug addicts, so we should have term limits, or we shouldn’t, or make elected offices less addictive, or we shouldn’t, or politicians are the drugs and voters are the addicts, or we should have term limits, or we shouldn’t, or maybe we need politicians to be more wonkish and less cult-of-personality, or we don’t.”

  2. C. Vermeers

    i have an increasing suspicion that the substance of abuse is money, with power as an indirect result of that. this comes, in part, from Robert Anton Wilson’s observation (in one of his autobiographical books) that the welfare system is run rather similarly to a drug dealer’s business: provide the clients with just enough to get them almost to the next time, as letting them run out reminds them of what it’s like not to have it.

  3. admin Post author

    C. Vermeers: Good point, and on the individual-voter level I agree. But lots of already-rich people run for office when continuing on their original course would probably be a better investment. Money is certainly the lifeblood of government, but it’s mostly the thrill of playing with Other People’s Money (i.e. power) that fuels the addiction.

    chrisrnps: Not. Helping. 😛


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