Friday, November 30, 2007

Rotting from the Head Down

Joe Klein reports on the responses of a Republican focus group gathered by Frank Luntz during the Republican U-Tube debate:

In the next segment--the debate between Romney and Mike Huckabee over Huckabee's college scholarships for the deserving children of illegal immigrants--I noticed something really distressing: When Huckabee said, "After all, these are children of God," the dials plummeted. And that happened time and again through the evening: Any time any candidate proposed doing anything nice for anyone poor, the dials plummeted (30s). These Republicans were hard.

But there was worse to come: When John McCain started talking about torture--specifically, about waterboarding--the dials plummeted again. Lower even than for the illegal Children of God. Down to the low 20s, which, given the natural averaging of a focus group, is about as low as you can go. Afterwards, Luntz asked the group why they seemed to be in favor of torture. "I don't have any problem pouring water on the face of a man who killed 3000 Americans on 9/11," said John Shevlin, a retired federal law enforcement officer. The group applauded, appallingly.

Andrew Sullivan labels this display of sadism The Foul Core of the GOP. But what if we're witnessing the corruption of the American electorate as whole? That's what inevitably happens when leaders violate the norms and taboos of civilized governance. I think back to those experiments by Stanley Milgram in the 1960s in which participants proved willing to administer excruciatingly painful shocks (which were faked) to those they believed to be the experiment's subjects, and Milgram's claim that you could find a full staff for Auschwitz in any typical American town. That is probably always true of people everywhere -- and that's precisely why when the leaders start pushing the torture-is-too-good-for- our-enemies buttons, we're on the road to ruin if other leaders don't stand up in opposition.

On the largest issues of governance -- respect for minority rights, human rights, international law -- the leaders have to be better than the people. Bush's crime lies in violating norm after norm, taboo after taboo of U.S. governance -- politicizing the CIA, Justice Dept, EPA and just about every other federal department; nullifying legislation via signing statements; harassing nonsupporters at campaign rallies; suspending habeas; and institutionalizing torture.

For years I've believed that the electorate as a whole is smarter than any of us; I've had faith in the wisdom of crowds as a key to democracy's success. But lately I've been thinking that leaders in power can corrupt this process; they can corrupt the people.

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