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Re-Politicizing American Politics

What a "living Constitution" really means.

12:00 AM, Jul 29, 1996 • By HARVEY MANSFIELD
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Since the republican form of government is selfgovernment, the government is ours -- and not merely in the sense that it imposes itself on us. It's true, to speak as candidly as James Madison, that our government controls the people -- but only on condition that the people control the government. With Big Government, however, we no longer sense that we are in control; the government controls us, and there's nothing we can do about it.

American conservatives, therefore, are not simply enemies of government, and they should not present themselves as such. The main task of conservatism today, to which all other concerns should be subordinated, is to restore our self-government, to revive our sense that it is ours and that, within reason, we can do with it what we want. Doubt about our system of self- government easily becomes doubt about ourselves -- for who deserves the blame for Big Government, the politicians or we who elect them? Because Big Government is so pervasive, popular anger turns into frustration; one cannot put politics aside when the government is always there at your side, hovering over your shoulder with warnings and regulations. Our frustration with government's reach is quite justified. And the job of conservatism is to correct the circumstances that account for it.

The conservative goal is not to minimize the scope of government, as if government were a necessary evil. The stodginess of Big Government, the slobbering effusiveness of its good intentions, seem to justify populist revolts against it. But populist revolts lack direction; they can go left as well as right, attacking corporations as well as punitive taxation. They are also fitful, and have little staying power because they do not present an alternative to the system they revolt against. Although they shun political parties, they end up being used or absorbed by them. Conservatives are entitled to exploit populist resentment against government if they use it to educate the American people in the forms and habits of self-government.

For the hidden truth is that, despite its reputation, Big Government does not breed too much politics; it breeds too little. While it increases the scope of government, Big Government reduces the range of arguable political questions through the establishment of entitlements. By offering everybody in the country benefits in the name of compassion and security, Big Government has succeeded in taking what ought to be a controversial set of political issues off the table -- indeed, out of the political sphere entirely. This is a radical depoliticization of government, and conservatives should oppose it.

One of the ways they can do this is by accepting the need for partisanship. There will always be a party of the Left in America, because our principle that "all men are created equal" seems to promise more than it can deliver. There will always be moralistic materialists, or materialistic moralists, ready with schemes to deliver on the promise. Thus, conservatives will need a party to oppose and, when possible, defeat them. And that party can be none other than the Republican party.

Conservatives may not be identical to Republicans, but they can hardly be indifferent to the fortunes of the GOP. The Republican party's best representatives opposed Big Government from the first under the New Deal and at its flourishing in the Great Society. They made two arguments that were unsuccessful at the time but have proved to be true.

First, they argued that Big Government costs too much. Its overwhelming cost was not apparent at first, when benefits were low, but it was predictable that benefits would grow beyond people's capacity or willingness to pay for them. And indeed they have. Benefits are too easy to increase, because the increases are too easy to accept.

An entitlement is a benefit you have regardless of the budget, of available resources, which means regardless of the common good. But a budget is not merely a sum of income and expense; it is also a moral accounting to your fellow citizens. Having an entitlement, however, enables you to forget the common good and encourages you to think: "I have mine, the hell with you!" Your defiance of others allows you to think you are independent, when in fact you depend on the government.