The Story of an Angry Voter
By DAVID BROOKS
Published: May 20, 2010
Letâ€™s imagine a character named Ben. A couple of decades ago, Ben went to high school.
It wasnâ€™t easy. His parents were splitting up. His friends would cut class to smoke weed. His sister got pregnant. But Ben worked hard and graduated with decent grades and then studied at East Stroudsburg University and the University of Phoenix.
That wasnâ€™t easy either. Ben would like to have majored in history, but he needed a skill so he studied hotel management. Others spent their college years partying, but Ben worked hard. After graduation, he got a job with a hotel chain. A few years later, he got a different job and then a different one.
He didnâ€™t have lifetime security or a fabulous salary, but Ben worked. He filled in for the night manager, hired staff and cleaned up the breakfast area when that needed doing.
In other words, in school, he labored when others didnâ€™t. At work, he sacrificed when others didnâ€™t. He bought a house he could afford when others didnâ€™t.
This wasnâ€™t a robotic suburban life. It was a satisfying, moral way of living. Ben lived according to an ethos of what you might call â€œearned success.â€ Arthur Brooks has a good description of this ethos in his new book â€œThe Battle.â€ As Brooks (no relation) observes, the key to happiness is not being rich; itâ€™s doing something arduous and creating something of value and then being able to reflect on the fruits of your labor.
For Ben, right and wrong is contained in the relationship between effort and reward. If people do not work but get rewarded, thatâ€™s wrong. If people work and do not get rewarded, thatâ€™s wrong. But Ben believed that America is fundamentally a just society. He loved his country because people who work hard can usually overcome whatever unfairness is thrust in their way.
But when Ben looked at Washington, he saw a political system that undermined the relationship between effort and reward. People in Washington spent money they didnâ€™t have. They just borrowed it from the Chinese. People in Washington taxed those with responsible homes to bail out people whoâ€™d bought homes they couldnâ€™t afford.
People in Congress were caught up in a spoils system in which money was taken from those who worked and given to those with connections. Money was taken from those who produced and used to bail out the reckless, who were supposedly too big to fail.
This was an affront to the core values of Benâ€™s life.
Once there was a group in the political center that would have understood Benâ€™s outrage. Moderates like Abraham Lincoln believed in the free labor ideology. Their entire governing system was built around encouraging labor and rewarding labor.
But these days, the political center is a feckless shell. It has no governing philosophy. Its paragons seem from the outside opportunistic, like Arlen Specter, or caught in some wishy-washy middle, like Blanche Lincoln. The right and left have organized, but the center hasnâ€™t bothered to. The right and left have media outlets and think tanks, but the centrists are content to complain about polarization and go home. By their genteel passivity, moderates have ceded power to the extremes.
So when Ben looked around for leaders who might understand his outrage, he only found them among the ideological hard-liners. In Arkansas, he saw a MoveOn candidate, Bill Halter, crusading against the bailouts and the spoils culture. On the right, he saw the Tea Party candidate Rand Paul crusading against runaway spending and debt.
Ben wasnâ€™t naturally an extremist sort of guy. He didnâ€™t live his life for politics or go in for the over-the-top stuff he heard on talk radio. But he did have some sense that the American work ethic was being threatened by debt and decadence.
It was going to take spit and vinegar to turn things around. So he voted for one of the outsiders. This is not time for a tinkerer, he figured. Itâ€™s time for a demolition man.
In a few yearsâ€™ time, Ben is going to be disappointed again. Heâ€™s going to find that the outsiders he sent to Washington just screamed at each other at ever higher decibels. Heâ€™s going to find that he and voters like him unwittingly created a political culture in which compromise is impermissible, in which institutions are decimated by lone-wolf narcissists who have no interest in or talent for crafting legislation. Nothing will get done.
In a few yearsâ€™ time, Ben is going to look for something else. It will be interesting to see if, by that time, any moderates have had the foresight and energy to revive and define the free labor tradition â€” a tradition that uses government to encourage work, to reward work, and to uphold the values at the core of Benâ€™s life.