“Failure” as Success: A Key to American Politics
July 2, 2013
It is said often, “Washington is broken,” or “the government is broken,” or “it is not working.” The interesting thing is that this is said even by those in Washington, who wield power, even significant power. So, why don’t these politicians “fix” Washington, make it work, as it is surely within their power to do so? And if they don’t fix it, it must because they don’t want to. So then the question becomes: Why not? Or: Why is “failure” really “success?”
Actually the answer, I think, is pretty simple and straightforward. A government that is not working, that is broken preserves and serves the status quo.
But here is the rub: Given that governments are suppose to work, to be “active,” to create change for the better, for those with power the trick is to look like you favor change without actually changing, at least no more than is absolutely necessary.
There are ways to do this and one way that I recently stumbled upon involves saying you are proposing “radical change,” that is, “real change,” such as LBJ’s “Great Society.” You propose, actually propose such change, e.g., LBJ’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act, ESEA. This act was touted by LBJ as the means of helping poor children get better educations. However, as enacted, the ESEA did no such thing. In fact, the act ended up serving, “compensating” in the language of the law, wealthier school districts more than the poorer ones. And Congress liked it because it was actually just “pork,” and not even a lot of “pork,” disguised as “radical change.”
Of course, ESEA did not work, as it was rhetorically intended to. Conclusion? “Radical change,” “real change” doesn’t work, even cannot work, as this legislation demonstrates. Conclusion? The “center holds” or we must or should be satisfied with the status quo. [It is even possible to see a set-up for a “conservative backlash” here but that too serves and reinforces the status quo.]
Ever wonder why our government involves itself and us in “unwinnable wars,” even while presenting our strategies therein as “new,” “bold,” or “radical?” Here at least is part of an answer. Because by “failing” in those wars, the government “succeeds.” At what? At reinforcing the status quo in the sense of reinforcing the idea that military power is the key to our security, not grand projects like “making the world safe for democracy,” or creating “new world orders.” Rhetoric like this is used, of course, but it is merely part of a set-up to remind us that government is, by and large, unable to create “radical” or “real” change. And because it is incapable of such change, we must maintain and even extend our “national security state.” We have no choice.
And this phenomenon also affects our choices in other ways. For example, if faced with the choice “to accept the likely collapse of South Vietnam or to back up American commitments militarily,” the deck is stacked, so to speak, in favor of the latter because even if the commitment is unsuccessful, it is better than the former in that it fortifies or reinforces the status quo. From the point of view of maintaining the status quo, “failure” is as good as, perhaps even better than “success.”
[And if someone objects and says: “But look what happened to LBJ!” Ah, yes, he was forced to leave the presidency or so we like to think. But the status quo prevailed nonetheless as evidenced by Nixon’s victory in the 1968 presidential election and the demise of Eugene McCarthy. And one could also point to the presidential election of 1972 as another illustration of how “failure” in Vietnam reinforced the status quo.]
Here is another example. It was obvious or should have been obvious to almost anyone that an educational policy labeled “No Child Left Behind” would fail, even had to fail. As one of my students at Bridgewater University said: “The whole purpose of our educational system is to leave some children behind!” Exactly. So, then, why pass it? Because its “failure” was “success.” Not an educational success but rather a political “success” by undermining further the idea that government or politics can create real change. And it should be noted that the “failure” of this policy did not undermine those with power or, more importantly, their claim to that power. It did not even undermine the bona fides of such policies as is reflected by its alleged replacement, “Race to the Top.”
This is why those with power in D.C. don’t mind saying and even demonstrating that “Washington is broken” or that “our political system is not working:” Because the “failures” are really “successes” from the current establishment’s point of view. And from the current establishment’s viewpoint, there is little incentive to “fix” the system. In fact, as with those “unwinnable wars,” where “failure” does not dictate staying out but actually encourages going in, political calculation favors “failure.” For in this way, the status quo is preserved, as is the power who have benefitted from it.