Americans really like to wage war—at least when it comes to domestic issues. There was Johnson’s War on Poverty, and Nixon’s War on Drugs (an Energizer Bunny of a war—still going strong). President Bush loses no opportunity to remind us that we are fighting a War on Terror.
We like our domestic wars for the same reasons we like sports contests: they are relatively short-term conflicts, and when they’re over, somebody won, and somebody else lost. Mission accomplished! Let’s go to the mall.
We aren’t quite so hot when it comes to the sustained, boring, never-ending business of making our government function. Where’s the excitement, after all, in policing, maintaining, coordinating and fine-tuning governing institutions? Those tasks offer none of the adrenalin rush of our “wars.” They don’t offer the same kinds of opportunities for pontificating on The Meaning of it All. And, of course, they rarely offer the lucrative rewards available to players who had the good sense to sign on with the winners. So we run American government at all levels pretty much the way we conduct our sporting events: we pay attention while the teams are on the field, and we lavishly reward the guys who win. And then we hit the channel button on the remote.
If it hadn’t been Hurricane Katrina, it would have been some other disaster that showed us the result of our constant denigration of actual government operations, our dismissal of all public servants as pathetic bureaucrats unable to function in the private sector. If we weren’t contemptuous of government, we wouldn’t treat national agencies like FEMA and local commissions charged with flood control as “turkey farms”—good-paying jobs for the political hacks who played with the winning team. I mean, it’s not like those agencies do anything important, right? To the victors go the spoils.
Not that patronage doesn’t have its place. We elect people (presumably) based upon their promise to steer government in a certain policy direction, and they are entitled to fill policymaking positions with people who agree with those directions. Theoretically, at least, we hold them accountable when they give important positions to people who can’t do the job. (And lots of people can’t. As easy as it is to pick on Michael Brown and his “experience” in horse-breeding, even real success in the private sector is no guarantee that someone won’t be clueless when it comes to the very different “business” we call government. It’s a lot harder to run a bureaucracy than it is to fight a battle, political or otherwise.) But most government work isn’t policy—it’s implementation. Is this air clean? Is this food safe? Will this city flood? These are functions than require a longer attention span than four or eight years.
Much as partisan ideologues hate to admit it, there’s a lot of government work that needs to be protected against partisan political priorities—and a lot of jobs that shouldn’t be handed out to turkeys as spoils of war.