In his return to column-writing after a brief respite, David Brooks reminds us that politics isn’t everything and shouldn’t dominate our lives (except for those whose work is to practice it or report on it). While Brooks makes the critique without regard to ideology, let me suggest the problem is most acute on the left — and with disastrous results.
Brooks observes that “there are those who form their identity around politics and look to it to complete their natures.” That was, if you recall, not simply an attribute, but a clarion call for the left: The personal is political. Gender relations, art, food choice, car purchases and just about everything else became a political exercise for the left. United Colors of Benetton, good; Walmart, bad. Whole Foods, good; Chick Fil-A, bad. Vegan, good; meat-eater, bad. It has nothing to do with the quality of the product or the efficacy of the behavior; consumption and lifestyle are expressions of personal politics for the left.
It is only fitting that the president just awarded the highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to one of the prime proponents (if not the author) of “the personal is political,” 1970s feminist icon Gloria Steinem. Thanks to her, sociology (no difference between boys and girls!) and history (a new academic discipline based on nothing but gender was created) became political. From monotheistic religion (repressive patriarchy!) to makeup (need I say more?), the political agenda took primacy.
For a president who believes great things in this country are “collective” endeavors — meaning run by the federal government — this is music to his ears. (Music also became political, of course.) In his remarks he explained:
Speaking of game-changers, disrupters, there was a young girl named Gloria Steinem who arrived in New York to make her mark as a journalist, and magazines only wanted to write articles like “How to Cook without Really Cooking for Men.” (Laughter.) Gloria noticed things like that. (Laughter.) She’s been called a “champion noticer.” She’s alert to all the ways, large and small, that women had been and, in some cases, continue to be treated unfairly just because they’re women.
As a writer, a speaker, an activist, she awakened a vast and often skeptical public to problems like domestic violence, the lack of affordable child care, unfair hiring practices. And because of her work, across America and around the world, more women are afforded the respect and opportunities that they deserve. But she also changed how women thought about themselves. And Gloria continues to pour her heart into teaching and mentoring. Her one piece of advice to young girls is — I love this — “Do not listen to my advice. Listen to the voice inside you and follow that.”
And if that voice told you to stay home when your kids were young, that was simply “false consciousness,” a helpful lefty catch-all to tell you precisely what you should do. So yes, parenting became very political.
Conservatives recoil against all of this. Their entire philosophy is based on limiting government — and hence politics — to a specific realm so that our lives can flourish, so that we can pursue happiness as we see fit. The right, therefore, finds huge government undertakings both foolish and anathema to a robust and free society. They saw the Obamacare debacle a mile away. Brooks describes:
As we’re seeing even with the Obamacare implementation, government is good at check-writing, like Social Security, but it is not nimble in the face of complexity. It doesn’t adapt to failure well. There’s a lot of passive-aggressive behavior. In any federal action, one administrator will think one thing; another administrator will misunderstand and do something else; a political operative will have a different agenda; a disgruntled fourth party will leak and sabotage. You can’t fire anybody or close anything down. It’s hard to use economic incentives to get people moving in one direction. Governing is the noble but hard job of trying to get anything done under a permanent condition of Murphy’s Law.
Well, that’s pretty much what conservatives have been saying — for three years.
For the left, it is always about turning the knobs this way and that, adding government layer upon layer so there are watchers to mind the layers below them. It is never-ending and never-satisfying. Those ornery Americans insist on doing what they want, even controlling their own purchases and selecting their own doctors. Conservatives delight in such defiance because it’s a sign that Americans haven’t signed over their lives to politics and government.
Meanwhile, in a poignant reminder that the White House doesn’t think we all have a life, the president is rolling out three weeks of Obamacare propaganda — in the month of December. He might be surprised to learn the vast majority of Americans this month are shopping, decorating, cooking, entertaining, traveling, baking, candle-lighting, singing, church-going and gift-giving. For them, that is the important stuff of life. Thank goodness.