Monday, July 05, 2004

Democratic Vistas

It’s rather like the joke in which a clerical error results in a world where the cooks are English and the cops are French. America circa 2004 has all the bad features of a democracy with few of its redeeming qualities. As the vice president would put it, right wing populism stokes class resentment and envy big time. Even though the Republicans are far wealthier as a group than the Democrats, it’s John Kerry’s class standing that’s somehow the issue in a campaign where the other guy comes from the bluest blood in America. More generally, the people are encouraged to believe that majorities should rule in the sciences (Creationism) but not in economics or even politics where the interests of the contributing classes trump, as if by rule, the concerns of lower and middle class people. Meanwhile our billionaires have become just plain folks, at least in the Dogville sense. While 19th Century economic elites felt an obligation to get cultured, modern money parades its coarseness and ignorance. Noblesse oblige really is problematic attitude, of course, but dispensing with it altogether is not necessarily better. And it’s not just that our nouveau riche have learned how to have nouveau riche children. The grandchildren of Connecticut bankers have learned how to munch on pork rinds in public, and their great grand children have learned how to like ‘em. Mr. Bush would feel perfectly at home in a house trailer. Indeed, if anybody ever belonged in a trailer…

What’s missing from our ersatz democracy is a first of all the sense of responsibility that should accompany popular sovereignty. Many of the people I speak with act as if they would be doing somebody a favor if they voted. Perhaps because they realize that they have little or no voice in public life, they don’t think of themselves as actors but victims. If, as is unfortunately very likely, America’s arrogant foreign policy eventually results in domestic disaster, it’s a good bet everyone will look around the next day and blame “them” for what happened. “Why didn’t you tell us?” they’ll ask, though they certainly never tried to find out.

Of course it is arguably true that no nation was ever very democratic in the sense of having a truly well-informed and vigilant electorate—I mostly believe in the iron law of oligarchy myself—but in any case, the anti-democratic tendencies of the last thirty years are not just a matter of process. Whether our politics are by the people or of the people, they surely aren’t for the people. The last three Republican administrations have been dedicated to lowering wages and cutting benefits for the majority of the population with predictable results.

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