What if the U.S. is the first postdemocratic society? That is, a society in which marketing techniques have grown so successful that they overwhelm democratic discourse as we know it, so that even the most thoughtful, able and public interest-minded elected officials cannot develop good policy and legislation and cannot speak anything approaching the truth as they see it if they have any hope of being elected. This past week Maureen Dowd and David Brooks, the acid and alkaline of the NYT op-ed page, each suggested as much -- Dowd in a dismissive rundown of the political pollster Mark Penn's microtargeting techniques as described in his new book Microtrends, and Brooks in a sympathetic recounting of Representative Deborah Pryce's alleged disgust after allowing the Republican attack machine to go to work on her behalf in the last election.
Holding office in a postdemocratic society would be something like competing in a sport in which steroid abuse is rife: if you don't cheat, you can't compete. We may need whole new types and theories of regulation, not to "level" the playing field -- between the two major parties it is quite level -- but to improve the quality of play.
I would begin by throwing out the perverse notion that advertising needs the full untrammeled protections of free speech. Lawyers in some states accept tight restrictions on their advertising. Why can't elected officials? Can no one challenge the notion that meaningful political debate can be carried out in paid 30-second spots?
Ditto for campaign finance. As the advantage shifts to the Democrats, we may see our last opportunity for a stand-down -- that is, for a negotiation in which each side shows awareness that under current rules the advantage may someday swing to the other side. As long as Republicans were in power, it was clear that the only changes to the status quo they'd countenance were those that furthered their chance of a permanent majority. The 2006 election opened a window, not only because Democrats are less ruthless in partisan warfare, and because their margin is so thin, but because the memory of a turnaround is fresh.
As the Bush era comes to a close, I wonder whether American democracy will self-correct as it has done in the past, or whether the democratic process has become so skewed by money and marketing technology that true course corrections -- i.e., those with a measure of bipartisan input and buy-in -- are no longer possible.