Sunday, August 17, 2008

Dissing the electorate III: Sullivan boosts Bacevich

Andrew Sullivan is endorsing a new diss-the-electorate meme: Andrew Bacevich's thesis in his new book, The Limits of Power:
The pursuit of freedom, as defined in an age of consumerism, has induced a condition of dependence on imported goods, on imported oil, and on credit. The chief desire of the American people is that nothing should disrupt their access to these goods, that oil, and that credit. The chief aim of the U.S. government is to satisfy that desire, which it does in part of through the distribution of largesse here at home, and in part through the pursuit of imperial ambitions abroad.
My bullshit detector beeps when I read phrases like "the chief desire of the American people." I still believe that ultimately the electorate proves itself smarter than all of us - that 'the wisdom of crowds' yields its best dividends in the electoral setting.

"Ultimately" doesn't mean "in every election." I think Lincoln got it right: you can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time. When we're fooled, events eventually make the damage plain. And democracy, if corrupt rulers don't sabotage its machinery, allows for self-correction -- that's its saving grace.

Americans are no more corrupted by their material interests than they've ever been. I shouldn't dismiss Bacevich's ideas without reading the book, and I don't mean to. But I do disagree with the statement above.

Bush's two terms are a major challenge to my faith in the electorate. But here's how I see that tragic course. A series of unfortunate events from Monica Lewinsky through Gore's wretched campaign through an ill-timed periodic malfunction of our creaky electoral machinery allowed Bush to squeak through in 2000. Then 9/11 (and the swift apparent success in Afghanistan that followed) granted him a huge reservoir of trust, which was almost-but-not-quite drained by Nov. 2004.

The electoral eureka came in 2006, in the wake of Katrina, Bush's ill-conceived attempt to radically alter social security, and escalating violence in Iraq. It came later than many of us would have liked, but it came. That's how democracy works.

Now Americans are ready for more change. In response, the Democrats have taken a huge gamble by electing a black man -- who, like Lincoln, has captured a major-party nomination by sheer force of eloquence -- and, I believe, by sheer force of intellectual power underpinning that eloquence. It is an earth-shaking gamble: no one knows how deep racial prejudice still runs. It's compounded by Obama's relative lack of experience in elective office.

But to my mind, in this year there have been multiple hopeful signs that the electorate has developed new resistance to the bacteria of smear politics. Chief among them is Obama beating back a wave of Rovian attacks from Clinton; another is the success not only of McCain but of Huckabee against opponents running far more demagogic and asinine campaigns.

One of Obama's mantras is not this time. He has been saying for more than a year that Americans are too smart to fall for the familiar lies, the familiar smears, the familiar attacks on manliness and patriotism. And he's got very far with that message.

I'm admit I'm scared. McCain has revealed his intellectual bankruptcy over time He won't even bother to try to balance his proposed budget; he has no idea beyond asserting a vanished (and to a large degree always illusory) hegemony of how to advance American interests while fostering prosperity and incremental increase in freedom in the emerging autocracies; his idea of a health plan is more privatization, more control to the insurance companies, more limits to coverage and exclusionary mineshafts for individuals. "Bush's third term" is as good a tagline as any in our sound byte politics to describe what McCain offers -- and "will make Cheney look like Gandhi" may also be not far off. We can't afford that. And there is a real danger that we may get it.

But I think Obama understands the dynamics. He's as much a master of our political process as anyone alive. I think he's going to get there. Get us there.

Related Posts:
Dissing the Electorate II
Dissing the Electorate
Obama's metapolitics
Obama's metapolitics


  1. "I still believe that ultimately the electorate proves itself smarter than all of us - that 'the wisdom of crowds' yields its best dividends in the electoral setting."

    Ridiculous. The Republican party has been running the same fear and patriotism scam at every level of electoral politics for decades--and it works all the time.

  2. Silver Heron:

    a) It doesn't work every time, e.g. not in 1960, 1964, 1976, 1992 or 1996.

    b) Republicans deserved to win in 1980, 1984, and arguably 1988.

    c) To the extent that post-Atwater smear tactics have worked, we may be entering a period in which their power is diminished.