Does American Democracy Still Work? (The Altercation Book Club)

››› ››› ERIC ALTERMAN

My "virgin" appearance as a blogginghead did not turn out so well, alas. I blame Clinton ... (Actually, on the visual, you may think it's another screwup, but I think it's interesting. What an, um, big head Mickey seems to have, huh?)

I invented the Book Club for days like this, but I usually forget to use it this way. Thing is, I saw the Stones last night at Giants Stadium, and they didn't come on until 9:45 (I missed Kanye West), and then there was the long wait for the bus back to the Port Authority, and being a Man of the People, I economized by taking the subway home, which meant, well, you know, I'm kinda tired. (I'll be tired tomorrow too, after seeing Clapton (with Derek Trucks on guitar and Robert Cray warming up) at the Garden, but that's why God invented "Slacker Friday.") Plus, I'm really worried about Pedro's pitching last night. I'm worried about torture and stuff, too, but as I said, I'm kinda tired and really, really worried about Pedro.

But wait. "What were my fellow concertgoers like in section 219 of Giants Stadium like?" you ask. Why, they were "sanguine, merry, boyish, super, inexhaustible, global, boffo, glowing, ever-elegant, dapper, lovely, amazing ..." Oh, wait, that was Mark Halperin of ABC's The Note describing the guests at his own book party, care of ABC News itself, which I believe is not getting paid by Random House to parlay that crap. My mistake ... (Actually, my fellow concertgoers in the cheap seats -- a mere $115 including Ticketmaster -- were fine, though this tattoo business has really gotten out of hand, methinks.)

Oh, and I have a new Nation column on the Halperin/Harris book here.

And sorry, I couldn't resist this: Bush's war in Iraq has literally turned to shit (and piss.) And hey, it's only costing $2 billion a week. Thanks, MSM, liberal hawks and Ralph.

And I already had this:

If there is a genuine "Islamo-fascist" regime on the planet, the government in Khartoum is certainly it. "It is also a regime arguably more murderous than that of Saddam Hussein," writes David Morse at TomDispatch.com, "with a more expansionist agenda; a rogue state that has sponsored terrorism in the past and threatens to launch a jihad if the UN intervenes in Darfur. Earlier this year, Osama bin Laden issued a world-wide call for terrorists to go to the aid of Khartoum. Sudan has bona fide -- not fabricated -- ties to al-Qaeda. Khartoum is, in other words, everything Mr. Bush could wish for in an 'Islamo-fascist' enemy."

So how has the Bush administration dealt with it? In a striking anatomy of administration policy, Morse explores the way the president and his top officials practiced "appeasement" toward Khartoum, despite its genocidal behavior in Darfur, based on close ties with the oil business. He concludes, "Appeasement driven by oil is surely as reprehensible as any. When confronted with reality, this President is clearly reluctant to confront the genuine 'Islamo-terrorists' of his nightmares."

OK, that's enough.

Altercation Book Club:

Alan Wolfe, Does American Democracy Still Work? (Yale University Press, September 2006) Wolfe is the Director of The Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life and Boston College, and the author of a lot of good books. I'd also recommend this article he wrote for the Washington Monthly recently, called "Why Conservatives Can't Govern."

Neither cynicism nor naïveté is helpful in highly ideological political periods. The American people are already disposed to dislike the process of democracy because they believe it fails to be responsive to them; one can only wonder how much deeper the national sense of unfairness will become in a more ideological age in which a strong minority is ignored, an indifferent majority is manipulated, and even higher proportions of the federal treasury accrue to the well off and powerful. One conclusion, though, is already clear, at least if the research of Hibbing and Theiss-Morse is correct: Americans are unlikely to respond either to political extremism or to distortions in the workings of the democratic process by demanding reforms that would restore their faith in democracy. To be sure, Americans do not want their political leaders to lose touch with them. But nor do they want their political leaders to consult with them too much or ask for their input too frequently. They are not especially fond of the new politics of democracy, yet too cynical to imagine that anything would be significantly better, they have resigned themselves to its perpetuation.

If cynicism can be so easily transformed into complacency, naïveté can easily reinforce indifference. Trusting politicians even as they distrust politics, Americans seem frequently unaware that they are no longer governed by people who share their own moderate instincts to avoid contention and controversy but rather by ideological extremists ruthless in their political tactics and determined to bend every rule to their advantage. Intent on reshaping the United States to conform to an ideological vision of the way it should be, America's leaders have knowingly moved into the new politics of democracy. Anxious to retain the luxury of escaping from politics and the demands it places on them, ordinary Americans have not.

Given the tumultuous times through which so many Americans have lived -- the 1960s, Vietnam, Watergate, the Clinton impeachment, the 2000 election, September 2001, the Iraqi war, and a potential constitutional crisis over presidential authority during the Bush years -- it is perhaps understandable that they learn so little about politics and distrust it so much. America's leaders from both parties have hardly been models of forthright honesty and deeply etched integrity in recent years. Why treat them with respect when they have shown so little respect for those who elect them?

Such reasoning, however, can take one only so far. Ultimately the American public's lack of information about politics stems neither from cognitive limitations hard-wired into the brain, nor from the failure of such institutions as the media to provide them with the information they need, nor from the traumatic experience of having politicians disappoint them. Information gaps exist for one reason only: Americans have the choice to care about politics and have chosen not to. They may think that withholding their support from politicians is a way of punishing them. But it is not; their failure to inform themselves allows their political leaders tremendous leeway to get what they want. Distrust of government constitutes no check on that leeway; if anything, its accompanying naïveté gives politicians even more room to change the world as they see fit.

It is not a pretty sight, this willingness to denounce politicians for their cravenness combined with an unwillingness to pay attention to what they do. When it comes to politics, Americans rely on their cynicism to escape from their obligations, and they trust their naïveté to counter their ignorance. Their views about politics frequently seem more appropriate for spoiled children than for mature adults, as if they want politics to be perfect and, when they discover it is not, they reject it as unworthy. The demands that democracy places upon them are not especially onerous. No one is asking them to devote their life to politics; all that is required for better democratic performance is that they have some idea what they are talking about and some inclination of where those for whom they vote stand. But these tasks are evidently too demanding for them to take on, and they flock instead to those politicians who appeal to their vanity rather than speak to their needs.

These are harsh conclusions to reach, and they sit uncomfortably with me even as I reach them. One always wants to give ordinary Americans the benefit of the doubt. Frequently there is reason to do so; as I have argued in my own research into American opinion, there is a moderate reasonableness out there in the country, especially on contentious moral issues, that has far more wisdom behind it than the more ideological politics of the activists in Washington. But reasonableness is not enough, not under the conditions of the new politics of democracy. Leaders determined to achieve more ideological outcomes have raised the stakes for Americans, brilliantly taking advantage of their ignorance of and hostility toward politics in ways that can only prey on their fears and destroy their hopes. One can and should blame politicians for this, for they ought to do better, but being politicians, they are likely to take advantage of whatever opportunities present themselves. Ordinary Americans cannot, therefore, avoid their own share of the blame. American democracy will have the quality Americans want. If it is to perform better, they will have to work harder.

More here.

Correspondence Corner:

Name: LTC Bob Bateman
Hometown:
Capitol Hill, DC

I generally don't much care where I get my news, so long as it appears factual. A fellow academic recently sent one story along, the link is below, and I believe it is worth some thought. As Altercators know, I am of the opinion that during War or Peace, it is important for citizens of a Democracy to understand war. The article highlights the sorry state of affairs for military history within academia.

In this case, because this story comes from National Review, it should be viewed with some dose of healthy skepticism. But in my opinion it does, generally, accurately portray the state of affairs on campus, although it is also a little too loose with the facts about what military history is about for my tastes. The author's disdain for "social history," for example, is idiotic. He raises the point that "social history" is infecting military history, without even realizing the irony that several of the noted historians he cites as paragons consider themselves to be social historians as well. The development of "social history" fields has only been a boon, at the intellectual level, for serious military historians because it has opened our eyes to new ways of thinking about old issues.

But on another level he is right in his gross assertion that military history is disdained, military historians held in generally low esteem, and the field may be in danger of dying out ... during a time of war.

I think he is also correct, to some degree, in asserting that this is occurring in no small part because those with the authority in most history departments do seem to conflate the study of the military with militarism. The irony, of course, is that several of the most liberal democrats I know ... are military historians. But see the story here and decide for yourself. Professor Mark Grimsley has also started a discussion about the article on Cliopatria here, and, of course, there is always Grimsley's own ever interesting blog, here.

Name: Ryan Scott
Hometown: Portland, OR

Dr. Alterman,

For some reason, I watched each of the evening news programs on the major networks, back to back to back.

All 3 played up the "he said/she said" story involving Dr. Rice and the Clintons. One of them (I don't remember which) even showed the words "he said/she said" on the screen, which was disheartening for the reasons you've often articulated.

I was pleasantly surprised however that ABC and NBC both provided evidence that contradicted Dr. Rice. Specifically, they reported that -- despite her assertion to the contrary -- she and the Bush Administration had been given a plan by the outgoing Clinton Administration on dealing with al Qaeda. Both stories left no room for any other conclusion than she lied, though of course they didn't say so explicitly. "Pleasantly surprised" probably understates my reaction.

But then we get to CBS News with Ms. Couric. To make sure I didn't simply miss something, I checked the story on their website this morning. The following two sentences reflect the discussion of the above issue in its entirety:

Rice also took exception to Mr. Clinton's statement that he "left a comprehensive anti-terror strategy" for incoming officials when he left office.

"We were not left a comprehensive strategy to fight al Qaeda," she told the newspaper, which is owned by News Corp., the company that owns Fox News Channel.

Though the evidence to the contrary is easily obtainable, and was obtained and broadcast by two principal competitors, CBS News displayed either (1) exceptional ignorance, (2) cowardice and capitulation, or (3) incompetency.

Well, maybe that should be "and/or."

Name: Roy Weber
Hometown: Ridgewood, NJ

Dear Eric:

Re: Steve on pre-war planning. I believe the reason for not using sufficient troops during the war, in the immediate aftermath and now is to avoid having to draft middle class kids into the army. Vietnam showed what happens when you force young men to go to fight in an unpopular war. The kids and their parents stop sitting meekly by and begin to be heard. If this war had a greater impact on young Americans and their families, we would have left Iraq already.

Name: Jeff
Hometown:
Baltimore

Hey Doc,

It's dangerous the way people are reacting to Chavez's comments about Bush. Because the guy's oratory skills call to mind a rabid wolverine it's easy to forget that his is a nation to be reckoned with. (And if you dial him back about ten notches, isn't he right?)

Americans view all Central and South American countries as banana republics. But while we've been pissing off the world, countries like Venezuela and Brazil, just to name those in South America, have quietly been gaining ground as economic powers. Chavez is not some tinpot dictator. He's a democratically elected leader who is much more popular in his country than Bush is in ours. Chavez is sitting on some of the world's biggest oil deposits. Take a wild guess as to which country is Venezuela's biggest customer. We receive about 10 percent of our oil imports from there. He has nothing to fear from us. On the other hand, if he were to cease exporting oil here ...

Similarly, we tend to lump all of the Middle East together, especially Iraq and Iran. They must be similar because their names only differ by one letter, right? The two countries couldn't be more unalike. Iran is ethnically and religiously homogenous, so there's little internal strife. They have a democratically elected president whose approval rating is about twice that of ours. By destroying Afghanistan and Iraq we took away Iran's two biggest headaches and thus elevated them to the most powerful country in the region. Why aren't they backing down about their nuclear program? They don't have to.

The only feasible way to get oil from the huge oil deposits in Central Asia is a pipeline straight through the Iranian desert. So Iran is very tight with Russia. And China. They have nothing to fear from us with those two bodyguards behind them. It's yet another example of how irrelevant the US has come, how the rest of the world has been going about its business as Bush does his Nero routine.

The awful irony here is that Bush's so-called plan was to use Iraq as the example of how to run a democracy in the Middle East, when next door there actually is one!

It starting to look like perhaps that the reason for W's many failures internationally is how he "misunderestimates" other nations. He seems genuinely baffled as to why these leaders don't bow down before him. Of course, we can't expect him to know anything about these places since he's so proud to admit he doesn't read.

Name: Mark Lindeman
Hometown:
Kingston, NY

I'd like to address a few points that Phil Davies made about exit polls.

  • The discrepancy in the 2004 U.S. exit poll was about 6 points on the margin -- not what most people mean by "gigantic." No poll, no matter how large the sample size, is immune from bias.
  • The "unaltered exit poll results" on cnn.com (actually based on both interviews and pre-election polls) were POSTED after the polls closed, not leaked. A crackdown on leaks would affect what we know about the exit polls BEFORE the polls close. I hope that cnn.com posts those tabulations again this year, although CNN probably isn't very happy about how it played out last time.
  • How can Edison promise to "get rid of" the exit poll problems? It can't.
  • The Carter Center has repeatedly recommended against using exit polls as evidence of election fraud. Survey researchers simply don't regard exit polls as all that reliable. (The 2004 exit poll had Kerry winning New Hampshire by 15 points and New York by 31 points. Who thinks that happened? I don't.)

It's interesting (for a while) to talk about exit polls. I've been doing it for two years. But if you care about preventing election fraud and vote suppression, please work on that. If you care about finding out what happened in Ohio in 2004, please work on that.

Name: Steve LaSala
Hometown:
Manahawkin, NJ

I'm with Joe Raskin -- bring on the A's!

Now, I understand that the memory of 2000 is more recent and that there are players on the Yankees that played in the 2000 Series, but there aren't any on the Mets so it doesn't count.

On the other hand, the A's gave away Art Howe who still had a year left on his contract. Only then Met management would not question why they would do such a thing, just as they would only put Mo Vaughn in a batting cage for 10 minutes and pronounce him healthy, so the A's knew where the suckers were.

We owe them.

As far as 73 goes, I was tearing the hair I then had out as Yogi bypassed George Stone and with that one stroke blew the series. Were it anyone other than Yogi I'd have found that unforgivable.

God bless Omar Minaya.

Name: John
Hometown:
Richmond, MI

Dr. A.,

We have a little ball club here in Michigan that might have something to say about the Yankees facing the Mets.

Name: Gene Tuck
Hometown:
Fresno, CA

Hi, Eric

Just to let you know I really like everything at your new home at Media Matters -- easier to read, the blog comes up faster, and somehow the links seem to work better. Plus, I always flinched at having to see the noxious MSNBC letters every day! You're in much better company these days. Same good stuff, which is very nice! Thanks!

We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.