Thursday, January 31, 2008
On the electorate
It's amazing how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit. —"Charles Condomine," a character in Noel Cowart's play Blithe Spirit (1941)
I was searching for a video of an interview with George Soros in Davos when I happened upon another from August 2007 with Charlie Rose. I thought of Cowart's quip after watching it [at 18:15]—
ROSE: .... American values have not changed! The American people have not changed!
SOROS: We have betrayed the values that we —
ROSE: That's one thing. But that's the political leadership that you're talking about.1
SOROS: I'm afraid that there is something wrong with the followership. This is not just the leadership's fault.
ROSE: So you think we've changed?
SOROS: I think something has gone wrong in America. I don't that think we care so much about being lied to. We accept it. We expect it from politicians and actually we get it. We get it from both sides actually—it's only a matter of degree.
And so something has actually gone wrong. We need to recapture what America used to stand for....
Since the "followership" is currently engaged in the the primary elections, I thought it would be interesting to sort this out.
On the one hand we have Rose turning all red-white-and-blue and defending the good name of the American electorate. On the other, we have that "foreigner" George Soros casting aspersions on the integrity of the electorate and longing for the good ol' days when we presumably stood for something—"American values."
First we should note that the makeup of the electorate has changed since 1965, when the Voting Rights Act forcefully asserted the right of blacks and other minorities to vote.
I have no sociological data at hand but suspect these minorities were, and are, less trustful of the white political class than their majority counterparts. That has not, however, led them to greater sophistication or integrity at the polling station.
In black-dominated districts blacks seem as accepting of duplicitous politicians as the rest of us—they're just pleased the politician is black. For some the sentiment may be—quite reasonably—that so long as white leaders are free to pillage the country, there really is no reason—other than racism—to prefer the one over the other. Should blacks (or Hispanics or Native Americans or ...) expect themselves to be better than "the Man"?
It was an utter disappointment for many white liberals when minorities turned out to behave like the majority. But in lieu of putting the majority household in order, liberals downed a heavy draft of hypocrisy, pronounced themselves pleased with the gains made by minorities (though there is always "more work to do") and got on with making money. Conservatives took a double dose of the same medicine, declared that we are finally all equal and set about reducing minority access to the ballot, schools and jobs.
So I'm inclined to agree with Charlie Rose (in a way that he certainly didn't intend)—that American values haven't changed all that much, even if the makeup of the electorate has. But Rose's view of what those values are is quite sentimental.
Rose attempts to use in defense of the public the case of Richard Nixon—
But we had in our history, without comparing—without comparing the level of it, we had a President who lied to us before. We had Richard Nixon, who had to leave office!
But it was not the American people who forced Nixon from office but a powerful Congressional leadership in opposition to him.
Like the current President, Nixon oversaw great affronts to civil liberties, many of which were reported in the media (with much the same lack of enthusiasm we see today). If Nixon had confined his activities to the suppression of antiwar protesters and minorities, he would likely have lived out his days as a "revered elder statesman"—a role he almost managed to assume despite his forced resignation. In the end the Democrats brought him down because, through the break-in of the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee and other indicators, it became quite compelling that Nixon was a threat to them.
On the other hand, I agree with George Soros that the American people—the "followership"—are culpable, though his notion of returning to some sort of "Golden Age" is entirely romantic. We Americans live on myth—and prefer it that way. Telling the truth is a sure-fire way for politicians to find more time to spend with their families.
With the house afire the Democratic electorate is now divided between two coalitions who steadily ignore the blaze but are voting on what they take to be their self-interest.
On the Obama side we have the black voters, who are hopeful they've lived to see the day when a black man can be elected President, and young, moderate idealists who just want us to gather round the campfire and "come together."
On the Clinton side we have older women who fought for women's rights, now hopeful they've lived to see the day when a woman can be elected President, and poorer young white women who hope that Hillary will "feel their pain," and a mass of people who hope for a return to the "good ol' days" when the worst that ever seemed to happen was a Presidential blow-job.
Unfortunately, whichever of these two candidates represents the Democrats it's not out of the question that we will see yet another Republican elected President—especially if John McCain is picked, which seems likely.
John Edwards, who announced he was dropping out of the race yesterday, was easily the most electable of the three Democrats in the general election, and as importantly, also came the closest to telling the public that their house is on fire.
On the PBS NewsHour, where they gave Edwards' withdrawal more coverage than they ever gave his candidacy, analyst Mark Shields managed to say something with which I could
John Edwards was ill-served by the economy. If in fact the economic pains and torment we're about to head into and are now experiencing had happened six months ago, I think John Edwards' message would have had greater saliency.
And I think there's a greater chance that a similar message will be embraced if things do head further south for the economy. And I think the strength of his message was seen by the fact that he's the one that set the tone. On the national health he was the trendsetter, the pacesetter, and the others did follow suit—and on economic justice questions as well. So even though he didn't have the star quality, ... he did in fact have an influence on the debate and dialog of this campaign. [a Simply Appalling transcription]
So is the American electorate entirely culpable? Surely not. Through the efforts of the media, the political leadership and our educational system, Americans constitute the least informed electorate of any Western democracy. The "sheeple," as some have taken to referring to us, are easily led.
Is there any hope? Not much, but we must grasp at straws.
Economic collapse has a certain undeniable reality to it. There are very few left who can recall the Great Depression, and very few who study it today. But it was a time when the elites found themselves at considerable risk. There were socialists, communists and fascists roaming the streets. Something had to be done. What was done was to take a moderate turn to the left (though it looks quite radical from where we sit today).
In that regard I hear the name of Frank Delano Roosevelt (FDR) in the media and in the speech of politicians more than I've heard it for decades.2 If ever there's a time when we may hope to dismantle the "Reagan Revolution," this is it. After that all we'll need is another great war and the people should be pacified.
2A search of today's Google News yields some excellent examples—
- From the NY Times, "Bloomberg Embraces FDR’s New Deal"
- From the San Diego Tribune, "FDR's answer to loan mess would prove useful today"
- From the LA Times, "Gov. talks like FDR, but walks more like Scrooge"
And it's easy to sense a certain anxiety on the right!
- From the National Review, "World without Walls"
- From Minyanville, "How Democrats Failed to Learn From FDR's New Deal"
- And from the extremely right-wing actor Michael Moriarty of the Law and Order TV series (who's running for President, by the way), writing in Enter Stage Right, "The God of American progressives: Part two: FDR's third act" [back]