Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Two cheers for Nineveh

At this moment, when the stock market has fallen faster than in the early thirties and we've learned in new detail that for eight years we lived under a President who authorized himself to abrogate the First and Fourth Amendments and unilaterally violate any law or treaty he chose, what's to feel good about?

This: our political system is working again. Has worked. Over two elections, we threw the bums out. The political safety nets held -- for the present. Collectively we lost a quarter of our worldly wealth. But we have our (political) health.

Thinking about the resilient if slow-moving wisdom of the electorate, I find Jonathan Chait's unsentimental view of how democracy works oddly reassuring:
Rush Limbaugh is drawing some ridicule for saying, "One thing we can all do is stop assuming that the way to beat [the Democrats] is with better policy ideas." But I think he's basically right. Good ideas are meritorious. But being meritorious isn't what wins elections. Most voters have only the faintest idea what policy ideas candidates advocate when running or implement when in office. External conditions (such as the economy, but war and scandal matter also) have much more influence over which party wins...

I think it's pretty clear that the Democratic comeback since then has had next-to-nothing to with developing "new ideas" and almost everything to do with Republican failure, the state of the economy, and a really effective presidential nominee. yes, Democratic ideas proved more popular, but they really were the same basic ideas the party had advocated for years.
Democracies are not immune from extended periods of misgovernment. They are resilient, and adaptive, because unless misgovernment erodes (or crushes in one fell swoop) the basic machinery of choice, they retain the ability to self-correct. And that ability swings not on the ideologies that juice the agents of power but on the cold, hard facts to which those ideologies are answerable.

Sometimes events do mow down the wrong guy, or even the right guy for the wrong reasons -- a recession falls unluckily, a helicopter crashes in the desert. And I think Chait's wrong to the extent that bad ideas, gussied up with slick Rovian sophistry and smears, can sway the swing voters at times. You can fool all of the people some of the time, and a bare majority for a bit longer. Electorates make mistakes. But eventually, the facts break through.

If America is a shining city on a hill, it's not Jerusalem (thank God!). It's Ninevah. We know how to repent, and change course.

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