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Commentary | JOHN BALZAR

Hope: Last Refuge of the Helpless

Maybe the shift in the balance of power in Washington will get the nation moving again.

November 17, 2002

It's downright jarring to read about the consolidation of power in Washington. All that flexing muscle and sharpening of knives, so real and dynamic in the capital, seems weirdly discordant with the general frame of mind elsewhere in the land.

So for a moment let's set aside the certainty of our cynicism and allow that we could be in for a surprise, and not just the obvious.

As the result of a net switch of 1% or so of the seats in Congress and because the substance of pivotal campaigns was far spongier than the mandate they created, George W. Bush has more maneuverability and fewer promises to keep than any president in memory: power, pure and simple. It appears that opposition Democrats, too, have been energized. Losing where it counts, but not by so much, they stand to lose little else by rousing themselves. Their ideas and their leaders weren't defeated -- the lack of them was, which I gather is regarded as a door thrown open to opportunity.

For the moment at least, our dreary gridlocked politics have picked up motion. Scary and exhilarating, isn't it?

Remember that quaint idea about power having a purpose beyond the merely tactical and defensive? If this should reemerge as fact, not artifact, in the nation's capitol, we might find ourselves having to set aside our griping about politicians always lagging timidly behind the public.

Right now, the reigning mood outside of Washington, at least where I live, has less to do with taking control of the future than being powerless against it. Centrist politics have become accepted as an excuse for inaction, or for baby steps that take us not down the middle of the road but in wandering circles.

Pollsters have it wrong when they ask Americans whether the country is on the right track. The more telling question is: Do you feel there is anything you can do about it? Asked in light of a score or more of long-ignored and deepening social challenges, the answer: Not really.

Health care, traffic congestion, business scandals, Social Security, immigration, budget deficits, environmental sustainability, classroom overcrowding -- the only consensus has been that problems are bigger than we have imagination and energy to tackle them.

Take just one: The whole country seems flat-footed against the power of corporations -- whether the companies we work for or those that produce the goods and services we consume. Despite the inanities about the marketplace answering to consumers, I don't know anyone who doesn't feel that it's the other way around these days, with the possible exception of a longshoreman or two.

Thus there has been far more resignation than indignation over the unfolding of the most extravagantly expensive crime spree in our history. Too few people believe in the willingness, or even the ability, of our leaders and institutions to rein in the multinational overlords.

When the government caved in and settled with Microsoft's monopoly, for instance, many consumers reacted as if the case was doomed all along. "Microsoft is everywhere, aren't they?" as one shopper summed it up for The Times. "Why even bother trying to fight it?"

That's why pollsters almost always find that people are more confident about their own lives and the future of their neighborhoods than they are when asked about the fortunes of the larger nation. At least in our backyards, we still feel some command over destiny.

Now this sudden celebration of old-fashioned power in Washington raises the possibility of a change beyond momentary ideology in the course of our politics. As soon as we start hearing that our challenges aren't too big to tackle, we just might find politicians trying to outdo each other with some fresh ideas to meet them. After all, that cat has been snoozing in the bag for a good long while now. Who knows what frisky critter may emerge if the strings come untied.

Instead of "Why bother trying?" we might be astonished to hear, "Why not try?"

Let's remember that no small number of our politicians are more imaginative in private conversations when they speak of what the nation should be doing than they are in public pronouncements of what cannot be done.

It is every generation's conceit to believe that it is writing history in bold type. Maybe we're about to. No harm in hoping. Surely there is great instability, plenty of hidden fissures in the social bedrock, when the most powerful nation in the world is populated by so many citizens who feel powerless.

*

Inefficient: I was mistaken last week in a column that challenged conventional views about the benefits of never-ending economic efficiencies. In the movie "Duck Soup," it was Chico Marx masquerading as Groucho, not Groucho himself, who said, "Who are you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?"

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