The Subversion of Citizenship

The Subversion of Citizenship

The 2000 elections were marked by voter apathy, distrust of politicians, and a widespread cynicism that extended to the political process itself. A certain wariness of state power and those who wield it has been present throughout our history, but that is different from today’s seemingly pervasive and persistent hostility to government and politicians. One way of understanding this state of affairs is to take conservative political rhetoric seriously and see how it reproduces and supports political alienation. George W. Bush’s presidential campaign and his speeches as president provide excellent examples.

As in all campaigns, he appealed to voters’ material interests and to the more intangible desire for “leadership.” The former was to be satisfied by a tax cut and the second by his claim to be a “uniter not a divider.” The promise of leadership was repeated in his inaugural address, which noted “differences so deep that we seem to share a continent, but not a country” and gave a “solemn pledge. . . to work to build a single nation of justice and opportunity.” A typical campaign proposition on taxes was that “we’re dealing with people’s money, not the government’s money, and I want to give people their money back.” The contrast of the “people’s money” with the “government’s money” is part of a common political strategy; the culturally ingrained wariness of state power makes “the government” a tempting and easy target, even for someone who aims to head it.

For Bush, the burden of the charge is not that the government is ignoring the electorate’s mandates, but that “the government” is an enemy of “the people.” When he said early in the campaign, “I believe that after we meet priorities, all that remains must be passed back to Americans, so that it will not be spent by Washington,” he was implying that the government commonly misappropriates the people’s taxes. In this construction, “Washington” becomes a strange and alien place not to be confused with anything “American”; it is an autonomous entity serving only itself. The point was made more bluntly by Lawrence B. Lindsey, Bush’s chief economic adviser and head of the National Economic Council, who told a reporter that for a conservative like himself, the greatest threat is “the overweening bureaucrat with the power of the state behind him who may be unchecked in his ability to tell someone how to run his life.” In a Florida speech, after signing the new tax bill, Bush echoed Lindsey by triumphantly proclaiming, “This bill reflects a philosophy that says we trust the American people more than we trust government.” It is difficult to see how a president of a democratic society who cannot trust his own government can be a “uniter not a divider.”

Even when the opportunity arises to build “a single nation” that will overcome “deep differences,” it is blatantly ignored. As electric pow...