I refer to the sheer scope, speed and urgency of the issues that go to a president’s desk, to the impossibility of bureaucracy, to the array of impeding and antagonistic forces (the 50-50 nation, the mass media, the senators owned by the groups), to the need to have a fully informed understanding of and stand on the most exotic issues, from Avian flu to the domestic realities of Zimbabwe.

The special prosecutors, the scandals, the spin for the scandals, nuclear proliferation, wars and natural disasters, Iraq, stem cells, earthquakes, the background of the Supreme Court backup pick, how best to handle the security problems at the port of Newark, how to increase production of vaccines, tort reform, did Justice bungle the anthrax case, how is Cipro production going, did you see this morning’s Raw Threat File? Our public schools don’t work, and there’s little refuge to be had in private schools, however pricey, in part because teachers there are embarrassed not to be working in the slums and make up for it by putting pictures of Frida Kalho where Abe Lincoln used to be. Where is Osama? What’s up with trademark infringement and intellectual capital? We need an answer on an amendment on homosexual marriage! We face a revolt on immigration.

The range, depth, and complexity of these problems, the crucial nature of each of them, the speed with which they bombard the Oval Office, and the psychic and practical impossibility of meeting and answering even the most urgent of them, is overwhelming. And that doesn’t even get us to Korea. And Russia. And China, and the Mideast. You say we don’t understand Africa? We don’t even understand Canada!

Roiling history, daily dangers, big demands; a government that is itself too big and rolling in too much money and ever needing more to do the latest important, necessary, crucial thing.

It’s beyond, “The president is overwhelmed.” The presidency is overwhelmed. The whole government is. And people sense when an institution is overwhelmed. Citizens know. If we had a major terrorist event tomorrow half the country–more than half–would not trust the federal government to do what it has to do, would not trust it to tell the truth, would not trust it, period. ~Peggy Noonan, OpinionJournal.com (Oct. 27, 2005)

Hat tip to Rod Dreher

Ms. Noonan expresses the anxiety that the “wheels are coming off.” Now, I tend towards the apocalyptic side myself sometimes when looking at the future, and I have always regarded people who cannot imagine colossal disasters or tremendous decline unfolding before us as people who have very poor imaginations. Nonetheless, Ms. Noonan seems to have lost some perspective.

It is often said, as a compliment, that Americans are a very optimistic people, and that certainly has its advantages in looking at the world with a certain sense of possibility, but I have to regard it as one of the sources of our greatest weakness and a reason for our profound ignorance of the rest of the world (as well as a cause of our lack of curiosity about the rest of the world). A people with no sense of tragedy cannot really understand the other nations of the world, nor can it understand their history, and because that people cannot understand or sympathise it quickly loses interest in quarrels and strife from far away and long ago that seem to say nothing about their own experience.

In this sense, we should not laugh (too much) at the revelation that prior to the invasion of Iraq Mr. Bush had no idea what distinguished Sunnis and Shi’ites from each other, because most Americans could not be bothered to learn or care about such disputes (just as they never wanted to learn or care about what distinguished a Croat from a Serb, and were perfectly willing to accept the blatant misrepresentation that the conflict was the result of “ancient feuds,” which was American code for “bizarre strangers killing each other for stupid reasons.”). As an aspiring Byzantinist with interests in heresiology, an area that seems to leave even Byzantinists cold, I perceive this general lack of interest among Americans in ancient quarrels acutely. One might expect more from the President, I suppose, but then this is part of the problem I have been talking about: people do expect more from the President, and this is where we have gone very wrong. We should not expect more from him (our system of election makes sure that our high expectations will always, always be disappointed), but rather not allow him to have as much power and as many responsibilities as he does. It would matter much less that Mr. Bush is a profoundly ignorant man if he had relatively few responsibilities and limited power–if here, in other words, the President of a republic and not an autocrat.

In one sense it is well that Americans are optimistic, because it means that we have not experienced what most nations have experienced in their time: defeat, dispersion, occupation, slaughter, ruin, general grinding poverty. In another sense, it has made us especially sensitive to every setback and inconvenience, and this has only worsened as we have become more materially successful, comfortable and spoiled.

Things may be going badly, and they may well get worse, generally speaking, whether that means a green flag and crescent flying above the capitals of Europe in another generation, the continued cultural disintegration of this country in another generation, or the end of the era of cheap credit and easy debt and the resulting financial panic that would sweep the globe. Any of those would indeed be very bad and would constitute, in one way or another, the great crack-up of the world we now know and, in spite of itself, still manage to love in many respects because it is our own, deeply flawed and in need of significant repair as it is. But Ms. Noonan is talking about something else.

She was worrying about something that the government and the political class has brought upon itself. If the institutions of government are today overwhelmed with the sheer mass of “problems,” and if the political class feels that there is this tremendous, unmanageable, impossible chaos that threatens to sweep us all up in its waves, it is because they have pretended that the “domestic realities of Zimbabwe” and any number of other things irrelevant to their actual mandate are their concern. Anyone would be overwhelmed when he takes on a thousand times the number of things he should be doing. This is the dark side of the optimist style in politics: this is what the breaking-point of an optimist’s tolerance for problem-solving looks like. At some point, even the political optimist, who assumes that every problem has a solution and that there is a political means to solve every problem, realises that he was horribly mistaken when confronted with insoluble problems or a sheer overwhelming mass of difficult problems.

But Mr. Bush has only exacerbated all these things by giving himself, the government and the political class even more burdens and work than they had before and far more than they ever needed. He has made extraordinary, indeed lunatic commitments to “end tyranny” and spread democracy and defeat terrorism, two of which are decidedly impossible. The policies he has undertaken have likewise complicated and worsened matters, even if they have proceeded from utterly simplistic premises. If Mr. Bush has set himself impossible goals, should we be surprised that the job of President has become impossible? A man who made it his life’s work to transmute lead into gold would be similarly aggravated and anxious about the results. Just so, the man who believes that all problems in the world are ultimately the business of politics will be quickly scandalised and disenchanted by the widespread failure to handle all of the tasks he has set for himself and his people.

This crisis of confidence in the leadership comes about not because the leadership is necessarily worse than it used to be (though this may also be true) and not because the circumstances of the world have become worse than they were 50 years ago, but because people have had all together far too much confidence in government’s ability to do an innumerable number of tasks.

It is the delusional man who suffers far more from encountering reality than the man in his right mind and we, as a nation, have been engaged in a general delusion for some time that the government can and should be doing most of the things that it does. Discovering that they are entirely incapable of doing most of these things at all well has been a bit of a shock for some, but this is the fault of those who put stock in the government’s claims of competence. And if half of the people do not trust their government to “do the right thing,” this is surely one of the best signs that all is not yet lost. What is depressing and what remains rather inexplicable is the other half who still trust the government after the last five years, which should have knocked that nonsense out of their heads if nothing else would.

As for whether we are heading towards “tough history” or not, it is difficult to say. My generation, the generation that grew up in the ’80s, has had it easier than practically any other generation in history, so we are probably due for our comeuppance and a short swift kick to the teeth from reality. Reality is that history is, has been and always will be “tough” in the sense that it will require struggle, suffering, trials, burdens and obligations, because that is the human condition. Whether or not history will be “tough” in the sense of disasters, wars and general ruin has much to do with the sorts of decisions we are making now as it does with random accidents or the actions of other nations. If we are headed for “tough history,” it is in large part because we, as a nation, have been driving on a collision course with that “tough history” while remaining blissfully oblivious to the inevitable consequences of excess.