Not since the days of Watergate have American politicians been so despised, and small wonder. At present the job approval rating for all national politicians stands at 11 per cent, making them about as popular as car-jackers. With unemployment at 8.6 per cent, “hope and change” exposed as the cynical electioneering soundbite it always was, legislative gridlock right across Capitol Hill, and a government closedown only averted at the last minute back in June, the one last slender hope was that the bipartisan congressional “Supercommittee” would be able to come up with $1.2 trillion of spending cuts in $44 trillion of projected deficits. It couldn’t. The “Stuporcommittee”, as the New York Post dubbed it, failed, and with it went the last of the American people’s respect for and patience with Washington DC.
Both the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movements are reactions against establishment Washington politics, from the Right and the Left respectively, and there is now an assumption that both will promote independent candidates to stand in the presidential elections. The emergence of Michelle Bachman, then Rick Perry, then Herman Cain and now Newt Gingrich was not solely a repudiation of Mitt Romney’s centrism by conservative Republicans, but also an emphatic rejection of the kind of business-as-usual politics Romney seems to personify. Despite Gingrich having earned an estimated $100 million over the past decade as a Washington lobbyist, he is somehow thought of as an outsider, at least in Republican eyes.
Of course it has always been popular to run against “Washington”: every candidate since Lyndon Johnson has tried it, with varying success. Ronald Reagan did it very efficiently in 1980, but all candidates try to distance themselves from the politicking and deal-making that are the unavoidable by-products of a large modern democracy. Frank Capra’s iconic movie Mr Smith Goes to Washington, in which Jefferson Smith (played by Jimmy Stewart) takes on and beats Washington corruption, was made in 1939, after all. In the denouement, Mr Smith tells his colleagues in the Senate: “I’ve got a few things I want to say to this body. I tried to say them once before and I got stopped colder than a mackerel. Well, I’d like to get them said this time, sir. And as a matter of fact, I’m not gonna leave this body until I do get them said.” Cue the return of honesty and decency to American public life.
What makes the problem so much more serious nowadays, and away from celluloid, is that individual corrupt politicians are not the problem; Americans appreciate that it’s the system itself that’s broken. With President Obama 11 months from an election in which he has adopted a platform of blaming “the millionaires and the billionaires” for blocking recovery, and the Republicans refusing to increase taxes without corresponding spending cuts, any movement on the economy has been “stopped colder than a mackerel”. Yet Americans being the self-reliant individualists that they thankfully remain are not taking their politicians’ failures as the last word on matters.
Recalling that they weren’t led by a single president of note between Lincoln’s death in 1865 and the advent of Teddy Roosevelt in 1901, and yet became the world’s largest economy, Americans are appreciating that political leaders aren’t essential to national success. Individuals and corporations in particular are providing public goods and services to an extent that they rarely did in the past, and are doing it far more efficiently than the government does.
Increasingly, all that Americans are asking of their sclerotic civil service is that it simply gets out of their way; indeed, if you want to see “the Big Society” working in practice, forget Scandinavia and look towards “the land of the Free”.
The Committee to Encourage Corporate Philanthropy, the main research institute that tracks corporate giving trends, reports from its database of 184 companies (63 of which are in the Fortune 100) that corporate giving overall has increased by 53 per cent since 2007, i.e. since before the economic crisis. Instead of cutting back on their generosity and involvement in the hard times, individuals and corporations are actually giving more. The sum of contributions across all respondents totalled more than $15.5 billion in cash and products. The biggest increases were unsurprisingly to be found among those companies that work in the healthcare sector which, because of the dislocations inherent in Obamacare, are giving away more medicines to Americans than ever before.
In America’s vast educational-industrial complex, private money is making a huge impact, with philanthropists acting far more proactively than in the past. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, noting that the average graduation rate in US high schools is only 57 per cent among black and Hispanic students, has poured money into consultancies, research institutes, testing groups and for-profit school networks to try to improve the system. The foundation virtually invented the concept of “common core standards” in English and maths.
Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, has contributed $100 million to create a better grading system than the existing one, and Mayor Bloomberg has put $30 million of his own money into the Young Men’s Initiative in New York City, with matching funding from George Soros.
November saw the death of the charismatic financier Teddy Forstman, a philanthropist who responded to America’s failing education system by setting up the Children’s Scholarship Fund, a programme that has provided scholarships worth $483 million for 123,000 low-income children to get into private schools. For all that President Obama is trying to stir up class resentment against “the millionaires and billionaires”, they are getting the government’s job done for it, and doing it with far lower overheads, costs and interdepartmental squabbling.
Outside America, it’s much the same story. In 1970, seven of every ten dollars given by the US to the developing world came from the government bureaucracy, which controlled every aspect of spending. Today, that amounts to a mere 15 per cent, with the rest coming from private capital and philanthropy, corporations and NGOs.
The Gates Foundation, which has spent more in the past decade on neglected-disease research than all the world’s governments combined, has been so dissatisfied with the authorities’ health indexes that it is funding the development of brand-new metrics for ranking developing world health systems. Other companies also bypass the sclerotic state system and go straight to the heart of the problem, in a huge way: PepsiCo recently gave $8 million to water.org which will improve water sanitation for 800,000 Indians.
Private involvement has even extended into foreign affairs. A recent article in Foreign Policy magazine, somewhat provocatively entitled “The New Colonialists”, reports that in Georgia in the former USSR, American NGOs “have come to wield an inordinate amount of influence since the country emerged from Soviet rule. Today, its pro-Western president is supported by a steady dose of financial and political aid from abroad, and many state functions are financed or managed by outside help.”
Before Georgia’s Rose Revolution, foreign political consultants advised the opposition on its campaign strategy, and the American consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton has been hired to help rebuild state ministries from the ground up, recruiting and training new staff. American technocrat-consultants are now, the magazine states, “participating in day-to-day decision-making on critical national matters, such as political reform and intelligence sharing”. This was the kind of thing the State Department and CIA used to advise upon sotto voce in the past: today the job is being done by private corporations.
Of course some on the Left are troubled by all of this reduction of the role of government in areas where it was once the preponderant supplier. “It’s sort of influence-peddling writ large,” complains Richard Brodsky, a former Democratic state assemblyman, when discussing the education system. “The notion that society is better served by the super-rich exercising their charitable instincts is in the end anti-democratic.”
In fact, far from being anti-democratic, this dynamic, can-do attitude is quintessentially American, and it wouldn’t be happening if the democratically elected politicians of both parties had not for so long put their petty partisanship before their country’s best interests.