The War Over Health-Care Reform: "Incomparably idiotic, and hence incomparably amusing."


As the war over health-care reform rages on and Beltway commentators tut-tut over the decline of respectable political discourse, I invite observers everywhere to step back from their passions and policy preferences for a moment and bask in the glorious absurdities of the American political system: Watching the president of the United States make the rounds to deny that Congress is planning "death panels" while protesters compare him to the twentieth century's greatest monster is in some ways depressing. Looked at another way, though, it resembles nothing so much as good-old-fashioned entertainment. No screenwriter could possibly gin up a scenario this delightfully loony, and if one did, no one would believe it. 

I share Nick Gillespie's frequent worry that politics is a rotten way to conduct our affairs, and, as I've said frequently over the last few weeks, I think it's inevitable that the more we turn our daily business over to the government, the more we find our lives politicized. But while we're in the midst of politicizing everything, I find myself in agreement with the great anti-democrat H.L. Mencken that, nevertheless, there's a great deal of amusement to be found in such riotous scenes. "I enjoy democracy immensely," he wrote. "It is incomparably idiotic, and hence incomparably amusing. Does it exalt dunderheads, cowards, trimmers, frauds, cads? Then the pain of seeing them go up is balanced and obliterated by the joy of seeing them come down." I imagine Mencken, scourge of both populist outbursts and the New Deal, would've frowned upon the idea of health-care reform, but would've found great pleasure in the freakish outbursts and political chaos the debate has generated. 

Earlier today, Matt Welch linked to Gene Lyons's complaint that "it's not a professional wrestling exhibition, it's our democracy." But when looking at how American politics functions—part soap opera, part scripted brawl, part chest-thumping showdown between preening egotists, all populist pandering—I don't think you have to squint too hard to wonder: Really, what's the difference?
Jack Shafer reviewed Terry Teachout's biography of Mencken here. Brian Doherty, riffing off another review of Teachout's book, wrote about Mencken's libertarianism here. Jesse Walker wrote about chaos at the health-care town halls hereReason's health-care archive is online here