In the aftermath of the financial crisis, the latest fashion among political thinkers in the public eye is to dismiss human behavior as irrational and unpredictable, and therefore garner any study of politics impossible. “Rational choice theory,” which proposes that people make decisions by comparing costs and benefits, has gone out of vogue as the central paradigm of economics and political science. Instead, people panic over “The Government’s” failure to anticipate economic peril and “The Market’s” failure to sustain businesses and allocate credit, proclaiming that the past few years have shown the need for brand new models of political behavior, maybe even a complete restructuring of the government or the economy.
Behind the alarm about the novelty of today’s problems lies a much more familiar story: The policy process has failed to produce rational, beneficial outcomes, and millions suffered as a result. This is nothing new. Government has been making bad policy ever since there was government, and these shortcomings must be expected from a collection of institutions composed of human beings. On the other hand, the truly alarming phenomenon of today is the American people’s total reliance on institutions for all-encompassing solutions in their daily lives. While citizens must be able to rely on their government for a reasonable degree of effectiveness—and we should never rest from this kind of problem solving—we must also realize its limits and cease demands for perfection and total resolution.
There is a pervasive sense in public opinion that “The Government,” a vague and godlike entity, should be held responsible for the points of frustration in individuals’ lives. This act of scapegoating is often reflexive and without real grounding, as in the rise of populist “Tea Party” movements across the country. The loosely associated group has yet to sublimate the political anger of its constituents into coherent, logical plans—vying instead to unseat incumbents and shouting demand that are nebulous at best. This kind of rabble-rousing can be seen around our campus as well, albeit from more of a leftist perspective. The lesson: Activism that will be useful must be grounded in an understanding of the political system. Radical idealism may be productive in abstract discourse and in describing ultimate goals—for which universities are an ideal forum—but without a foundation in strategy and realistic expectations, it will be ineffective in implementing concrete change in people’s lives.
Likewise, an over-reliance on institutions is dangerous because it makes individual action seem unnecessary or imprudent. Legislation and elections of the past five years reflect a continual effort to define a fight over a particular issue as the political battle to end all political battles. In passing a health care bill, for example, Democrats portrayed the legislation as the ultimate solution to all health care-related problems, and the end to all health care-related disputes. Politicians frequently use this device to endow themselves and their projects with enormous importance, in the process disempowering private citizens.
On campus, the candidates for the Columbia College Student Council attempt a similar deception. Executive Board candidates use clichéd, Obamaesque rhetoric of battling a monolithic “bureaucracy” to deliver fresh solutions and social justice to the average student. Their platforms attempt to tap into student anger over tangible issues—the academic calendar, the difficulty of reserving space, or the “War on Fun”—without proposing realistic solutions for dealing with them. To be sure, the candidates offer alternatives to the status quo in the form of nice-sounding proposals, but, in terms of describing a strategy of how projects will be implemented and won politically, the parties are silent.
The candidates invite students to place complete confidence in them, asking us to rely on them for all the answers and all potential for improvement. They seek to create the illusion that casting a ballot will be far more effective in fostering a Columbia utopia than any action from an unelected student could ever be. In some ways they are correct. With some of the greatest access and visibility to the administration and an electoral mandate from the student body, CCSC leaders are often in the best positions to achieve reform. But the rhetoric of the campaign is toxic to campus attitudes. It not only invites complacency by means of total dependence on one’s leaders, but, in discouraging individual action, it also restricts campus leadership to a narrow segment of the student body.
The problems of this dynamic between political discourse and responding attitudes is symptomatic of a much larger problem in America. A previously reasonable reliance on institutions to serve their allotted purposes has been transformed into dependence on “The Government” for solving daily frustrations and resolving all political disputes. To begin solving many of the problems that affect our daily lives, it is necessary to stop viewing our government as a force able to remedy anything we ask it to, and to begin placing more confidence in ourselves as individual agents of change.
Daniel Amzallag is a Columbia College junior majoring in political science and English. Outside the Gates runs alternate Tuesdays.