‘’The people have spoken … and now they must be punished.’’
-- New York City Mayor Ed Koch’s quip after an election loss
The politicians elected yesterday to new jobs will soon be blamed for doing the same sort of things that their ousted predecessors did as they tried to mate good governance with reality and ambition/ego with idealism.
Distracted and often ignorant citizens, many of whom are usually fleeing reality at a good clip, will demand a perfection from their elected officials that they would never demand of themselves. They will also praise, or more likely blame, the politicians for everything from the weather to the economy’s gyrations. (The first is out of politicians’ control --- unless you factor in the need for us to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide we’re pumping into the air. The second has so many global variables that government’s ability to manage economic cycles remains highly constrained.)
In its existential anxiety, the “the Public’’ will continue to depend on politicians to solve all its problems. Modern electronic media, with their instant ‘’analyses’’ and search for simple, vivid narratives, heighten this dependence and the resulting anger when public/personal problems aren’t immediately fixed.
Our news media (who roughly represent the citizenry’s character flaws) intensify our tendency to pour our hopes and fears into a few people, or even just one (especially the president). Such personalization is easier than trying to understand the details of, say, public policy, economics and history, let alone science.
My sense of the sloth of those who attribute all fault and praise in a big news event to one or very few individuals came together back in 1992, when President George H.W. Bush was in effect blamed for not restoring Dade County, Fla., to its pre-Hurricane Andrew strip-mall glory within 36 hours. Then in 2005, the public blamed his son for the Hurricane Katrina New Orleans mess, although that disaster was inevitable – New Orleans was/is a very corrupt, badly managed city most of which is at sea level or below.
And now some call the complicated (scientifically and otherwise) Ebola situation President Obama’s fault. (That his father was African may inform some of the attacks against him in this….)
Meanwhile, the public takes commands from the media and politicians about how they should feel. If the preponderance of the big (and small) media say that “Americans are pessimistic’’ or ‘’optimistic,’’ then we salute and feel accordingly, whatever the unemployment rate. But not for long, since the conventional-wisdom narrative can be changed overnight and the change “go viral.’’
That’s not to say that politicians’ characters and personalities don’t count – especially in great crises --- e.g., Lincoln in the Civil War or Churchill in the summer of 1940 as Britain stood virtually alone against the Nazi onslaught. But they rarely count nearly as much as we’d like to think they do. Life is far too complicated.
Now we look forward to more gridlock in Washington because the public doesn’t know what it wants (other than more services and lower taxes). It says “government doesn’t work’’ and ensures that it doesn’t by its conflicting and rapidly changing voting -- or, especially in a mid-term election, its nonvotes. The nonvoters are always among the biggest complainers.
Democrats have particularly little excuse for whining this year. A Pew Research Center survey shows that among those who were unlikely to vote last Tuesday, 51 percent favored Democrats and 30 percent the GOP. In this matter, Republicans are harder-working: They summon the energy to take 20 minutes to vote.
The lack of a direct long-distance rail connection between Boston’s South Station and North Station has always seemed to me ridiculous. Connecting them would make it considerably easier to move between southern and northern New England and further energize passenger rail as demographics (including a huge increase in the number of old people and a new propensity of younger people not to drive) makes public transportation ever more important.
The link should have been made at least a century ago. But the dominant New England railroads of the time – the Boston & Maine (at North Station) and the New Haven (at South Station) -- the city and the state’s couldn’t get it done, as it wasn’t done between New York’s Grand Central Station and Pennsylvania stations.
The Big Dig’s cost overruns haunt efforts to make this link. But rail projects make rich cities even richer by making them more efficient and attractive. The Big Dig made Boston more of a world city. Past gubernatorial foes Michael Dukakis, a Democrat, and Bill Weld, a Republican, recently joined to promote the link. All of New England will benefit if they succeed.
Robert Whitcomb is a Providence-based editor and writer and a partner in Cambridge Management Group (cmg625.com) a healthcare-sector consultancy. A former editorial-page editor for The Providence Journal and a former finance editor of the International Herald Tribune, he's also a Fellow of the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy and oversees this site, newenglanddiary.com