6 July 2007:

Cole, Powers, and Menand on political irresponsibility and illiteracy, in The New Yorker Review of Books and The New Yorker

There are two powerful and upsetting pieces in the current issue of The New York Review of Books (LIV 12). The first is David Cole's review of a handful of books about presidential power as envisioned by the Bush Administration; in the second, Thomas Powers goes through the timeline with a fine-toothed comb in search of an answer to the question, when did George Tenet realize that the Iraqi misadventure was "inevitable." Both pieces are sickeningly charged with Administration's sneering contempt for political opposition of any kind. John Rogers, the author of Kung Fu Monkey, distills the gases in a recent entry:

We are faced with utterly shameless men. Cheney and the rest are looking our representatives right in the eye and saying "You don't have the balls to take down a government. You don't have the sheer testicular fortitude to call us lying sonuvabitches when we lie, to stop us from kicking the rule of law and the Constitution in the ass. You just don't. What's beyond that abyss -- what that would do to our government and our identity as a nation -- terrifies you too much. So get the fuck out of our way."

Mr Cole and Mr Powers are more polite, but their anger, while restrained, is palpable. Mr Cole, writing on John Ashcroft's Never Again: Securing America and Restoring Justice:

Ashcroft seems to equate faith with the denial that there is any basis for ambiguity or doubt. Just as he made no apologies as attorney general, he expresses no regrets in his reflection (if one can really call it that) on his years at the helm of the Justice Department.

He defends the post–September 11 roundups, for example, by claiming that the government "was much more respectful of due process and citizens' rights" than when it interned Japanese-Americans during World War II. That's like defending segregation on the ground that it's better than slavery. In his retelling, Ashcroft sweeps away all inconvenient facts.

Mr Powers is even firmer:

Tenet's overriding goal in his carefully written book is to deny "that we somehow cooked the books" about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. If he says it once he says it a dozen times. "We told the president what we did on Iraq WMD because we believed it."

But repetition is not enough. Tenet's problem is that the intelligence and the war proceeded in lockstep: no intelligence, no war. Since Tenet delivered the (shockingly exaggerated) intelligence, and the President used it to go to war, how is Tenet to convince the world that he wasn't simply giving the boss what he wanted? Tenet naturally dislikes this question but it is evident that the American public and Congress dislike it just as much. Down that road lie painful truths about the character and motives of the President and the men and women around him. But getting out of Iraq will not be easy, and the necessary first step is to find the civic courage to insist on knowing how we got in.

Yet time passes and nothing happens. The "testicular fortitude" to counterattack the den of liars is lacking. It has been polled and test-marketed out of the Democratic leadership. And while the American people are widely said to be sick of the war in Iraq, it also seems that they're sick of hearing about it. The upset that I felt while reading The New York Review was familiar. What I felt reading Louis Menand's review, in The New Yorker, of Bryan Caplan's The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Politics.

We tend to assume that if the government enacts bad policies, it’s because the system isn’t working properly—and it isn’t working properly because voters are poorly informed, or they’re subject to demagoguery, or special interests thwart the public’s interest. Caplan thinks that these conditions are endemic to democracy. They are not distortions of the process; they are what you would expect to find in a system designed to serve the wishes of the people. “Democracy fails,” he says, “because it does what voters want.” It is sometimes said that the best cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy. Caplan thinks that the best cure is less democracy. He doesn’t quite say that the world ought to be run by economists, but he comes pretty close.

In the very next paragraph, Mr Menand rattles off some of the appalling invariables about American voters. Since 1945, a majority have been unable to identify a single branch of government; three quarters don't know the length of a Senate term. Our collective grasp of civics is astounding. It is apparently not worth most people's time to know the elements of their government. How can one expect them to elect able and courageous officials?

In my fantasy world, leaders are chosen by members of the elite. These meritocrats are impervious to the blandishments of advertising and contemptuous of the ad hominem attack. They read the paper; they discuss the issues. They think critically. They cultivate Stoic virtues.

Oh, and one other thing. In my fantasy world, this elitist government works.

Here in the real world, the only way to prevent structural rebelliousness is to give everyone the vote, no matter how thoughtlessly that vote is deployed. This is Mr Menand's sensible conclusion. But Mr Caplan's arguments, while more provocative than serious (one hopes), do linger on. His argument that democracy is a commons, not a market - that the field of politics can be poisoned by the almost unlimited number of silly ideas that voters can indulge at no personal cost - is certainly plausible. We live in a time when public responsibility is at an all-time low. The fundamental question appears to be whether public responsibility can be expected in a democracy that doesn't punish public irresponsibility. Crimes that don't involve theft - fraud, embezzlement or some other taking of money - are all too rarely pursued. Between sheaves of bad advice and a seriously inadequate memory, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is an embarrassment to the Bush Administration, but he stays on. Mr Cole writes,

Because he is still in office, it is too early for Gonzales to offer an extensive public accounting of his role, and given his asserted memory lapses, he may never do so. During his recent Senate testimony, Gonzales answered questions about the US attorney dismissals with some variant of "I don't recall" sixty-four times.[8] Gonzales was harshly criticized by virtually every member of the Senate Judiciary Committee—Republican and Democrat— but he simply sat there. Whether out of rank incompetence, loyalty to his boss, or both, he took the fall. (Why he has not yet resigned remains a mystery, since he is not helping the President's reputation by staying on as a deeply compromised official—unless, of course, by doing so he is hiding information that a more independent successor might reveal.)

But the very idea that whether Mr Gonzales stays or leaves is up to him goes to the heart of my point about punishing public irresponsibility.

Mr Caplan, Mr Menand tells us, would like to limit the vote to the economically literate. But who decides what economic literacy is? Does Mr Caplan really profess to believe that "economics" is a body of knowledge sufficiently settled to serve as the foundation of civic understanding? I certainly wouldn't agree with him if he did. Economics, and the markets that it describes, are relatively recent inventions, and we seem to have passed from the pre- to the post-industrial age within the compass of just three centuries. I don't see any timelessness there. The industrial age itself (the age of abundant factory jobs), apparently the world that economics describes, no longer exists, and it will never recur. It is best imagined as a line between the point, crossed sometime in the Eighteenth Century, when it became economically viable to hire large numbers of workers to operate manufacturing machinery, and the point, crossed within the past fifty years, when the number of workers required to operate machinery began to drop toward pre-industrial levels of manufacturing employment. How we're to get on in a world without a lot of jobs (and, presumably, without a new peasantry) is a mystery that not even Mr Caplan can unravel.

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