Decades from now, historians are going to fill e-tome after e-tome debating when the crisis in American authority began. A good place to start would be the Clinton era. The president of the United States had a tawdry affair, lied about it, and refused to accept any responsibility for his actions. The Republicans correctly pointed out that the president had acted beneath his office. The problem was that many of them were acting beneath their offices, too. In Washington, where the spirit of public service is supposed to reign, both Democrats and Republicans were using positions of power for private indulgence. Many things sprang from the Clinton impeachment. Confidence in authority was not one of them.
We correct for the mistakes of past presidents. George W. Bush (barely) won the White House in part because he promised to restore integrity to the office. And the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, did briefly increase the public's trust in government and its elites. In the tense months following the attacks, the public rallied behind strong leaders like Bush, Rudy Giuliani, and Donald Rumsfeld. These men, who had many private failings, nonetheless were seen to be acting in the interests of the nation as a whole. We seemed to be on the verge of a new era of patriotism and civic renewal.
But it was not to be. The lack of accountability among the elites quickly caught back up. There was George Tenet, whose time as CIA director included two massive intelligence failures. Bush gave Tenet the nation's highest civilian honor in return. There was the FBI, which still hasn't definitively figured out who attacked America with anthrax in late 2001. There was Rumsfeld, who committed too few troops to the fight in Iraq and failed to change strategy when it became clear, early on, that America was losing the war. He stayed in his job until 2006. The generals whom Bush and Rumsfeld tasked with running the war? None of them suffered any consequences for his failures. One of the main opponents of the successful surge strategy in Iraq, George Casey, was promoted to Army chief of staff.
Nor was the crisis in authority limited to politics. There were dramatic instances of public corruption such as the Jack Abramoff scandal, but there were also remarkable examples of private corruption such as the Enron and Arthur Andersen accounting scandals. In the months after September 11, business titan after business titan came under indictment: Enron executives, Martha Stewart, Tyco CEO Dennis Kozlowski--the list goes on. Chief executives were massively compensated even when they drove their companies into a ditch. No surprise when populism started making a comeback. The private sector and the public sector were failing the common man. Neither acted with any sense of propriety.
The same was true of our cultural elites. The celebrity of the age was Paris Hilton, an exemplar of the inequality and promiscuity that characterize the present moment. Hilton was born into extraordinary wealth but did not achieve true fame until 2003, when her homemade porno movie made it to the Internet. Twenty or even fifteen years ago, Paris Hilton's behavior would have been a scandal. Not today. Why? Because the wealthy, famous, and well-connected can do as they please and suffer no consequences--as long as they possess no shame.
There are moments when it seems as though every figure who waltzes across the public stage is a cheat, a fraud, a liar, or a failure. Child abuse scandals have tarnished the image of Catholic bishops and priests. Steroid scandals have racked Major League Baseball, the Tour de France, and the Olympic games. And then there are the celebrities who write books, make music, and perform in film and television. Where to start?
On any given day, any public figure might be arrested, assaulted, admit to infidelity, go bankrupt, or break down emotionally in front of television cameras. Sometimes all of these things happen at once.
The next day the celebrity will be released from incarceration. He will go into a rehabilitation program or "spend time with the family" and emerge, weeks later, with a tell-all book and publicity tour that make him even richer than he was before. The idea of "rehab" is so ubiquitous that in 2007 it was the title of a hit song. No negative value is attached to poisoning one's body to the point where it requires detoxification. Quite the contrary. "Rehab" is, in some sense, something to aspire to. To go to rehab implies deep financial resources and a life rich with experience (at least in the areas of alcohol and drug abuse). There are no consequences.
It wasn't until last fall that we saw how widely the rot had spread. Everyone was implicated in the financial meltdown. Everyone who took on a mortgage they couldn't afford, who lent to people who couldn't pay back the loan, who securitized the unpayable debts and resold them in ways even astrophysicists can't understand, and who instituted government policies that spurred a culture of easy money and consumption beyond one's means. All were responsible.
Meanwhile, as the men who brought the financial system to the brink of collapse were cashing in and remodeling their offices, the executives and union officials who bankrupted the American automobile industry were traveling to Washington hat in hand, begging the public sector to give them aid. Bush had no credibility with the American public. Treasury secretary Hank Paulson inspired no one's confidence.
America's political, economic, and cultural elites seem incapable of behaving responsibly and being accountable for their actions. That incapacity is why you wake up in the morning and dread reading the day's headlines. It is why, for years, there seemingly has been nothing but bad news. It is this larger crisis that has driven the public's opinion that the country is headed down the "wrong track" and fostered the widespread sense that American power has entered a period of decline. This is the age of irresponsibility.
Barack Obama was elected, in part, to restore the public's confidence in the elites. But he will have a hard time doing so. Obama mistakenly assumes that the problem is political. If the problem were political, a change in the partisan composition of government would be all that was necessary to restore confidence and integrity to the system. Yet nothing could be farther from the truth. The Bush administration's failures did not occur in a vacuum. The problem is systemic.
There has been a change in government, but the crisis persists. Political corruption has not disappeared. It has simply changed its partisan affiliation. The chairman of the House committee that writes the tax code is under investigation for cheating on his taxes. A leading House appropriator, John Murtha, is under investigation for accepting illegal campaign contributions. The chairman of the Senate banking and housing committee is under fire for a sweet mortgage deal that he received. President Obama's commerce secretary-designate, New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, withdrew his nomination because of an investigation into his handling of state contracts. Obama's Treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, whose department includes the IRS, has admitted to not paying payroll taxes while he was an employee of the International Monetary Fund. Obama's Health and Human Services secretary-designate, Tom Daschle, withdrew his nomination because he had not paid taxes on his limousine and driver. Another Obama appointee also withdrew because of tax problems. No wonder the federal government is in the red.
The financial system remains shaky. The CEO class remains out-of-touch and politically tone-deaf. In December, federal prosecutors accused investor Bernie Madoff of orchestrating the largest Ponzi scheme in the history of the world. There are manifold opportunities for rent-seeking and graft in the Democrats' huge stimulus bill. And the culture has not been reformed. Over the summer the American swimmer Michael Phelps dazzled spectators with his record-breaking athleticism. Since winning eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics, how has he behaved? Like a parody of a frat boy with way, way too much time on his hands. He gambles, drinks, and dates a stripper. Photographs of him smoking marijuana have surfaced in the press. This is not simply a case of a young person "having fun" and "enjoying life." Phelps is a role model. Role models have responsibilities. They are supposed to set an example. There are children's books written about Michael Phelps the athlete. Michael Phelps the young man is a character from a Jacqueline Susann novel.
Recently the world's highest-paid baseball player, Alex Rodriguez, admitted that he had used performance-enhancing drugs during the early part of this decade. A reporter asked President Obama for his reaction to the news. "You know what?" Obama said. "There are no shortcuts. . . . When you try to take shortcuts, you may end up tarnishing your entire career."
Bunk. In the age of irresponsibility, when you take a shortcut, you end up with $275 million from the New York Yankees.
So far, there have been two chief reactions to the crisis in American authority. The first is populist. The second is elitist and embodied in the policies of the Obama administration.
Populism, the sentiment that American elites are not acting responsibly, has been building for some time. We've seen it in the reaction to the long catalogue of government and market failures over the last decade. We've seen it in the palpable and growing anxiety about globalization that was manifest during the debates over the Dubai Ports deal, immigration reform, free trade, and the Troubled Assets Relief Program. We've seen it in the left-wing populism of authors like Thomas Frank and in the right-wing populism of Dick Morris, whose latest bestseller is titled--take a deep breath--Fleeced: How Barack Obama, Media Mockery of Terrorist Threats, Liberals Who Want to Kill Talk Radio, the Do-Nothing Congress, Companies that Help Iran, and Washington Lobbyists for Foreign Governments are Scamming Us . . . and What to Do About It.
This is nothing new. Populism has been around for a while. It has its pluses and its minuses. Populism is a temper, not a program, a vague suspicion of elites that reinforces democratic notions of equality and majority rule. The temper motivates Americans to periodically chastise their elites. But the populist commitment also has a dark side. It too often spawns political utopias and pie-in-the-sky plots to better the condition of the people. And populist outbreaks can spin out of control, moving from a reasonable suspicion to a paranoid search for "enemies of the people."
These days the enemies of the people are all over the place. For the left-wing populists, they are the titans of Wall Street, the bank executives, the CEOs who really botched things up but have suffered few consequences, and the business class's political allies in the Republican party. For the right-wing populists, they encompass all elites, from the CEOs whom John McCain criticized during the presidential campaign and the "liberal media" to central bankers and corrupt politicians.
Suspicion. Paranoia. Contempt. Resentment. This sort of thinking doesn't make for reasonable politics. And here, ultimately, is the problem with populism. It is good at diagnosis but bad at prescription. Are a large number of the folks in charge not performing their duties? Yes. Is American society suffering from a deficit of personal responsibility? Absolutely. But the populist too often goes overboard. His rhetoric becomes too fiery. His anger feeds on itself. Asked what steps he'd take to address the problems he has identified, he says little more than "Throw the bums out!" But that doesn't get us anywhere. There are always new bums to take the old bums' places.
Populism excels at tearing down old constellations of power and bringing new ones into being. In 1980, a populist moment brought Reagan the White House and Republicans control of the Senate. In 1994, it gave the GOP both houses of Congress for the first time in 50 years. In 2006, a similar populism handed power back to the Democrats. And, in 2008, widespread public anxieties sent Obama to the Oval Office.
Reagan was a success. He instituted public policies that spurred the economy, forced the collapse of the Soviet Empire, and reinstilled national pride among Americans. Since then the populists haven't been so lucky. The 1994 Republican Revolution ran aground shortly after it left the shore. The 2006 Democratic Restoration was inept. It failed in its principal goal--to force an American withdrawal from Iraq--and rapidly replaced Republican corruption with the Democratic version.
It's too early to judge Obama a success or a failure. But he does appear to understand the cause of the populist tremor. If his inaugural address is any indication, Obama has figured out that a lack of personal accountability is the problem. But he hasn't figured out what to do about it.
"What is required of us now," Obama said, "is a new era of responsibility--a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly." Obama identified the pervasive lack of accountability among American political, economic, and cultural elites. He reminded his audience of the concept of duty. And while he might have expanded the sphere of personal obligation a little too far--what does it mean, exactly, to have duties to "the world"?--the message was spot-on. "It is time to put away childish things," Obama said earlier in the speech, quoting Paul.
To leave childhood behind is to embrace adulthood and the values associated with it. Independence. Self-sufficiency. Modesty. Responsibility. Decorum. Fidelity. Civility. These are the values that have, like the buttresses of a cathedral, supported American society for centuries. A cursory glance around the country today--and especially at the people who run it--reveals that our nation is sorely lacking in these staples of middle-class life. We are living through a drought of middle-class respectability. And that has led us to political and economic crisis.
Obama and the Democrats believe that the erosion of bourgeois values can be slowed or even reversed through public expenditure. This is what the Democrats are talking about when they bring up the "vanishing middle class" and propose government intervention. But their efforts are doomed to fail. Public expenditure can't buy virtue. It may even crowd it out.
To preserve the American middle class, Obama and the Democrats want to transfer the burden of responsibility from the individual to the government. They want to raise taxes and finance expanded federal government intervention in education, health care, pensions, and the workforce. Their logic is that, if you no longer have to worry about sending your child to a good school--or going bankrupt because of a hospital visit, or delaying retirement because your 401(k) is now a 201(f), or working several jobs because you can't get a good wage--you are more likely to have a happy, healthy family. Your middle-class existence will be more placid. The bourgeois values of hard work, accountability, pride in country, and discipline will carry on to the next generation. The populist impulse will subside.
The stimulus bill captures the ethos of this new liberalism perfectly. The dramatic expansion of government's share of the economy is geared toward specifically liberal ends. Ends like Head Start, subsidies for college education, Medicaid, alternative energy, and a loosening of welfare requirements. The bill is a partisan Democrat's dream. It's also a huge miscalculation. Increased dependence on the state is not a solution to our lack of personal accountability. It will only encourage more of it.
Obama is no fool. He understands the need to bolster responsibility. He has given several speeches challenging fathers to play a more active role in raising their children. He seems open to good ideas from the private sector, from the nonprofits, from charities and churches. But his heart is with the public sector. He has witnessed elites fail, yet he seeks to put more power in the hands of political elites. Nor is he alone. The lack of alternatives to Obama's liberalism is dispiriting but unsurprising. All the political energy nowadays is on the left. The unanimity of liberal opinion seems to be that, for America to retain its place among nations, we need to look more like Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands.
But the values of such social democracies are the opposite of the American virtues. The opposite of what Obama claims to want to promote. The American ethos is one of self-reliance. This is not the same as autonomous hedonism and greed. A self-reliant individual is responsible for himself and his family. He is accountable for his actions. He has to be. The welfare state, by contrast, promotes dependence. As government expands its sphere of involvement in everyday life, the number of supplicants for government assistance increases. Rather than encouraging the individual to take responsibility for his actions, the new liberals have embarked on policies that will encourage the individual to turn to government instead. The individual might be delivered from the risks of the marketplace. But what about the risks of the public sector?
Government has, time and again, proven itself inadequate to the immense challenges of the day. At times it seems impervious to reform. The Democrats' assumption is that this is because the GOP was in power during much of the last quarter century. It is a partisan fantasy. What's more, the return of big government only invites further populist reaction. Since Obama has so clearly identified the solutions to the crisis with the state, guess who the people will rebuke if the crisis remains unresolved? Not Wall Street. The way we are headed, in a few years, there might not even be a Wall Street for the people to rebuke.
The failures of the elites aren't related to public expend-iture. They are related to a spiritual torpor afflicting the affluent. In a rich society, as we pursue our individual ends, obligations--both private and public--fall to the wayside. The status game consumes all. Corners are cut. The higher we scale the ladder, the more material possessions become an end in themselves. We chase one pleasure after another. Our mantra is "eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die." The reigning ethic is every man for himself.
Irving Kristol, in his 1976 essay "Adam Smith and the Spirit of Capitalism," anticipated the spirit of our own time:
[H]appiness comes to mean little more than the sovereignty of self-centered hedonism. The emphasis is on the pleasures of consumption rather than on the virtues of work. The ability to defer gratification, which is a prerequisite for a gradual bettering of one's condition, is scorned; "fly now, pay later" becomes, not merely an advertising slogan, but also a popular philosophy of life.
How does more federal money for school construction fix that?
There is no reason Obama can't begin to restore dignity to politics and American life. He just isn't trying very hard. But even if he did try, there is only so much one man can do.
Hence it becomes necessary to identify an alternative vision of society where elites uphold and promote the bourgeois values. Only in this way might we all salve the spiritual crisis behind our age of irresponsibility. Such a task extends far beyond the reach of politics.
Where to begin? Start with some exemplars of decency, professionalism, and ability. US Airways pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger III riveted the nation with his dramatic crash-landing into the Hudson River. -Sullenberger's experience and stoicism meant that not a single life was lost during the dramatic and dangerous touch-down. It is no surprise that he has been lionized in the days since. When everything else seems to be crashing all around us, Sullenberger is a rock of common sense and soft-spoken modesty. Imagine--just imagine--if the men and women who represent us in Congress shared his character?
Then there is General David Petraeus. At the recent Super Bowl, Petraeus received huge applause when he walked on field for the pregame coin toss. The crowd's response was no mystery. They were saluting the man who helped rescue the American war effort in Iraq, the man who did so without mincing words to the American people or their elected representatives. Petraeus has a Ph.D., runs marathons, wins wars, and spends every waking moment trying to become a better soldier and man. It ought to give us hope that our culture--the culture of A-Rod, Madoff, Hilton, and Murtha--is still capable of celebrating someone like Petraeus. Why not boldly and consistently champion the commitment to patriotism and duty expressed in the character of the American soldier--a living refutation to irresponsible living?
The sad fact is that it is difficult to come up with more than a few examples of elite responsibility. Failure breeds apathy. So the age of irresponsibility has spawned a cheap cynicism that says, since everything is broken, why not sit back and laugh at the degradation?
But the cynics are wrong. Things can get a whole lot worse. A failure of accountability not only erodes the foundations of our culture. It also puts our country on unstable fiscal ground. A storm of moral and financial insolvency has been brewing for some time. The populist reaction is only the beginning. We're hearing the thunder. Get ready for the deluge.
Matthew Continetti is associate editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.