At her 77th birthday dinner last night, my mother asked me if I still believe the dictum that's always been on my profile to the right on this page, that "the electorate is smarter than all us." I had to say no. That is, it's an oversimplification. I will take it down or modify it when I put up my next post.
The idea first formed itself when I read Stephen Ambrose's biography of Eisenhower in the mid-90s and it occurred to me that while I would never have voted for Eisenhower, the country was wise to. With some hesitation, I extended the thought to Reagan, and to Bush Sr. (reasoning here).
More broadly: throughout American history, notwithstanding long periods of drift and poor governance, the electorate has periodically empowered great leaders to embark on major course corrections. I never believed that the electorate never makes mistakes -- simply that, in the broad sweep of history, it enables corrections when they become necessary.
I hold to all that, except maybe the Reagan part (I credit his flexible and creative response to Gorbachev, but I also think that his denigration, defunding and denaturing of federal government agencies by appointing frauds and shills like Clarence Thomas and James Watt had disastrous consequences). And I still think that democracy remains the worst form of government except for all the alternatives because in the long run the people will hold leaders accountable for decisive failures of policy or execution -- as they did to Hoover, Carter, and ultimately Bush Jr.
Unfortunately, the electorate will also punish short-term, apparent failure. And we can be thoroughly gulled -- not all the time, about everything, but for a very long time, about lots of things. The Limbaugh-Fox lie machine keeps getting louder and more brazen, and the Republican party has signed on en bloc. So, this cycle, Republicans managed to convince large swaths of the electorate that the stimulus did not create or save jobs or add points to GDP; that the PPACA will add to the deficit; that the economy would not have crashed completely without some form of bank bailout; that the Democrats raised individuals' taxes rather than cutting them; and that the proper response to a recession is to cut spending.
I do recognize that these misperceptions are partly a reflection of structural forces -- when economic suffering is acute, majorities are unlikely to credit policies that are not noticeably easing the pain right now with positive effects, and are more likely than normal to credit misrepresentations of those policies. No party presiding over 9.6% unemployment is going to fare well with voters (unless it had dropped to the that level from, say, 12%). That is an atmosphere in which a sustained misinformation campaign can flourish. And Obama & co. did little to stop the lies.
I am not (partially) recanting now simply because my side lost one. I held to the dictum in 2002, when the electorate had bonded with Bush over 9/11 and the apparently effective response in Afghanistan, and in 2004, when I credited the power of wartime incumbency and a not-obviously-askew economy for barely putting Bush over the top, despite deep ambivalence over the Iraq war. In 2006, I felt that my faith was vindicated.
But the total intellectual bankruptcy -- and fraudulence -- of the Republican pitch this campaign cycle has flipped some kind of switch in me. That a party can sweep an election while promising to massively cut taxes for the wealthy and reduce the deficit while refusing to specify any ways to curb spending growth in Medicare, Social Security or defense does make me choke on any affirmation of the wisdom of the electorate.
I don't think my understanding of the way electorates work has changed substantially. (For many years, I've been aware of research from the 60s demonstrating that the vast majority of voters lack a coherent framework for assessing policy.) But at this point I've come see the assertion that "the electorate is smarter than all of us" as too simple. Lincoln's formulation is much more nuanced and limited and captures the dynamic far more accurately. You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time.
At least, not until Fox News becomes state media -- and Putin-style, neuters all the alternatives. That raises a larger question: can an electorate, by degrees, vote away its rights, vote for leaders who will hollow out or directly assault and destroy the institutions and behavioral norms that preserve its power of choice? That is a story we are in the midst of. And the jury is still out. Check back after the next major terrorist attack or economic shock.
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