If NPR station manager Caryn Mathes had her way, the upcoming mid-term election would be meaningless. And if President Obama’s pre-election analysis of his party’s troubles is correct, it should be. For America’s governing class, the scariest day of the year isn’t Halloween, but Tuesday, November 2—the day we cast our ballots.
In response to recent calls for NPR’s federal funding to be cut or eliminated, Mathes, general manager of WAMU in Washington, DC, argued: “I would hope that it reinforces how important it is for funding sources to be firewalled from editorial decisions. Whatever government funding a station gets needs to be protected from the vicissitudes of emotion and passion over a particular issue.”
What if President Obama is right: “Part of the reason that our politics seems so tough right now and facts and science and argument do not seem to be winning the day all the time, is because we’re hardwired not to always think clearly when we’re scared. And the country’s scared.” In such a case, it could hardly be right to force NPR stations to supply their own funding like just any other radio station.
The problem with politics, in other words—and especially elections—is that it involves under-evolved people whose fears disrupt the march of progress. Too bad we can’t all be like the President, who himself seems to have avoided the “hardwired” reaction to reject “facts and science and argument” when afraid—or perhaps has managed to avoid fear altogether.
Why not, then, protect everyone’s federal subsidies, tax breaks, and special privileges from the messy “vicissitudes” of political life? Why should any good program be repealed or have its adoption delayed by those who reject “facts and science and argument”? Irrationality cannot reasonably stand in the way of such obviously good things as national health care, green jobs programs, and public employees union protections. If the President and Ms. Mathes are right, the American people have no justifiable claim to participate in politics, much less shape its direction.
But there is one problem. The governing class view of the American electorate stands directly opposed to the first principle of our government: “that all men are created equal.” As political equals, American citizens together choose their representatives and hold them accountable for the measures they enact. New men bring new measures—perhaps even changes to the budget of NPR. This is the essence of self-government.
If that old-fashioned notion still strikes you as vaguely attractive, it may be that you have some more evolving to do, but, this year at least, you can be consoled by the fact that you are certainly not alone. Many others like you, moved by passion and logic, are rightly inclined to believe in such other dusty American principles as “No taxation without representation.”
Once upon a time, the American people were not led by individuals who believed themselves “hardwired” differently than the citizenry. These men, like you, understood the value of science—the science of politics. Our founding statesmen did not assume the self-evident goodness of their every intention or design, but labored to persuade the American people, appealing to the common reason of their equals with seriousness and respect.
Why? Because they knew that whatever authority they exercised, their fellow citizens had a right to pursue happiness and to be treated as those who are responsible for themselves rather than as cogs in another man’s machine.
When you go cast your ballot next Tuesday, ask yourself whether the person seeking your vote is hardwired more like Barack Obama or George Washington. Your answer to this question, and choice thereafter, will go a long way to determining whether a government of, by, and for the people is simply an artifact of the past or a prospect for the future.
Dr. Corbin is an associate professor of politics and Dr. Parks the assistant provost at The King’s College in New York City. They are the co-authors of the forthcoming Keeping Our Republic: Principles for a Political Reformation (Resource Publications).