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Is this the government we deserve?

‘Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard,’ H. L. Mencken

Rod Blagojevich was governor of Illinois from 2003 until 2009, when he was impeached. Two years later, Blagojevich was convicted of extortion and soliciting bribes. He was sentenced to 14 years in the slammer.

During the trial, Judge James B. Zagel pointedly addressed Blagojevich as “governor.” In his sentencing remarks, Zagel explained why.

“It serves as a reminder to those of us who vote and those of us who don’t,” Zagel said. “It reminds the voters of the maxim ‘The American people always get precisely the government that they deserve.’ Your case is another lesson for us.”

Judge Zagel’s point, I think, was that no politician takes office without the consent of the voters — their votes as well as their abstentions. Voters take responsibility, however, only for the good ones. Both an informed, engaged electorate that turns out to vote and an uninformed, apathetic electorate that stays home deserve what they get.

The maxim that a democracy will get exactly the government it deserves is widely and incorrectly attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville. It actually came from Joseph de Maistre, a mostly forgotten French philosopher of the reactionary counter-revolution school that preferred authority, faith and tradition to liberty, reason and fraternity.

“Every nation gets the government it deserves,” de Maistre said. In his view, a wise and virtuous nation deserved and would be rewarded with an enlightened despot. His favorite sovereignty was the Vatican.

In this early period of the Trump counter-revolution, I have heard many variations on de Maistre’s theme, including one from former President Barack Obama.

“People have a tendency to blame politicians when things don’t work, but as I always tell people, you get the politicians you deserve,” Obama said in May. “And if you don’t vote and you don’t pay attention, you’ll get policies that don’t reflect your interest.” He meant, “You got Trump.”

Obama’s adage is more in the spirit of H.L. Mencken than de Maistre. Mencken wrote, “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”

In my experience, people say that America gets the government it deserves when they despise the regime in power, when they are bitter and at the end of their wits. Since Trump’s election, I have been fighting a strong urge to join the de Maistre/Mencken school. It isn’t a charitable urge.

Philosophically, the whole concept is incoherent.

It makes no real sense to say that a whole nation or a people “deserve” something in a moral sense, whether good or bad. An individual can be said to deserve something. So perhaps can a team and other kinds of smaller, coherent organizations or communities. But not a nation. And what constitutes deserving? A good nation will be rewarded and a bad one punished? What constitutes good? Can a nation have good karma?

Rhetorically and emotionally, however, it resonates to think “we get the government we deserve.” A population that, compared to similar countries, turns out to vote at low rates, has low civic literacy and low engagement with parties, campaigns and public service shouldn’t be surprised to find it thinks it has low quality representatives and government.

The idea of a “deserving electorate” is further muddled because democracies are not perfect reflection of the voters’ will. For example, the individuals and organizations that finance campaigns and lobby government have disproportionate power that is independent of the popular vote.

I am inclined to think that sometimes we get what we deserve, sometimes we get lucky and sometimes we get shafted — at least in our modern presidents. I can argue for this in a way everyone can dislike.

Sometimes a presidential candidate turns out to be exactly the kind of president most voters thought — in a good way. Voters made wise assessments and deserve these good presidents. I would put Eisenhower and perhaps Kennedy in that group.

Sometimes voters pick candidates who don’t really seem made of presidential timber, whom they are ambivalent about and who then turn out to be predictably so-so as presidents. I nominate Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush for this category. Sometimes these candidates become much worse presidents than even tough critics thought they would be, such as George W. Bush.

Sometimes voters get lucky and the winning candidate does much better than expected as president. I put Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama in that category.

And some candidates’ deep and obvious character flaws and moral handicaps are obvious to the whole world yet they still win. In this group belong Richard Nixon, a disaster; Bill Clinton, a scandal and an embarrassment; Donald Trump, a disaster in the making, perhaps on an unprecedented scale.

So in this sense, I agree with de Maistre, Mencken and Obama. Donald Trump is the president we deserve. We elected him eyes wide-open and so shame on us. I hope our punishment is not too severe.

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