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All Politics is Vocal

October 19, 2010

These kids today.  A friend recently asked me to prognosticate about the future of democratic politics in the context of what appears to be generational slumps in individual virtue and civic-mindedness and a corresponding spike in selfishness.  While one might still hold out some hope that Americans choose to do the “right thing” through proposals like Michael Kinsley’s idea for an estate tax so heavy that it might begin to remunerate America for the Baby Boomers’ excesses, I fear that atomized individuals lack the will to carry a policy proposal across the finish line.  I worry that it is more likely that organized interests have gained enough stature or amassed enough power to preclude or preempt individuals’ ability and willingness to transcend and self-overcome their individuated and selfish and jealous human nature.  People are simply too (rationally?) disengaged and disconnected from the political process.  The public’s access to too many competing stimuli makes its already fleeting interest too difficult to sustain over a period of more than a few days at a time.

Since Citizens United (the case that established that corporations are people too, at least when it comes to “independent expenditures” on political speech), the problem of disparate corporate influence has enjoyed a bit of a spotlight.  But, like the previous efforts at reforming campaign finance had made explicit, allowing organizations themselves to wield influence separate and apart from the influence that might be exerted by their individual members and donors seems almost intuitively antidemocratic by giving more influence to the wealthiest members of society.  Imagine, for example, that a billionaire sets up several shell corporations and has each shell corporation spend some amount–even if capped by some legislated limit–in “independent” expenditures in support of a given policy proposal or opposing the election of an uncooperative congressman.  That one person’s political influence becomes disproportionately more significant and attention-worthy for the politician than an average voter’s. Larry Lessig agrees that the mere potential that this power can be wielded can create and influence all sorts of distortion within the electoral rat race:

Imagine, for example, that Exxon let it be known that it was willing to spend up to $1 million in any congressional district to promote candidates who are skeptical of global-warming science. Or imagine that Google let it be known that it would run up to $1 million in online ads to defeat global-warming skeptics. Neither position would necessarily be “coordination” sufficient to render the expenditures non-independent: both announcements could be made well before candidates are even chosen by parties. Yet, if the iceberg theory is correct [and the threat of expenditure is just as effective at inducing congressional behavior as actual expenditure], in neither case would all the money have to be spent in order to have its intended effect. Google might actually spend only a thousand dollars, and it would report that amount. But its influence would be far beyond what it reported, so long as its threat was credible.

As I mentioned in the last post, one hopes that the power of aggregation can create megaphones to speak to politicians on behalf of the interests of people, plain and simple.  For example, non-profit organizations, academics, think tankers, and run-of-the-mill bloggers such as myself are all capable of pushing the virtues of human rights and freedom on polities and policymakers.  And they have all the more power in light of the Internet and its great megaphonic powers.  The problem is that these values and ideals are abstracted by the individual politicians that provide the proximate choice to voters, and voters rarely have a wide enough array of electoral choices to accurately reflect their policy preferences and values, even if they were clearly honed and defined.  The Internet may be useful on this side of the equation as well, exposing information on candidates and laying their lives bare for public inspection.  Unsurprisingly, the public may not like what there is to see of any politician talented or whorish enough to clear the most basic electoral hurdles.

Even though the populism of the Tea Party makes the media report on the “movement” as though it were a romanticized reclamation of the values of communities and individuals over monolithic organized interests, the Tea Party squarely presents the problem of inconsistent and disconnected values and the politicians claiming to represent them.  The Tea Party is facilitated by the fact that voters attempt to identify with the individual rather than the politics, whether because that voter thinks politics as usual is irredeemably corrupt or because the average American is just as unclear on their own policy preferences.

This is a classic American myth, perpetrated by Hollywood, starting with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington–and it’s a lovely fantasy. Mr. Smith was an inspired amateur.  He followed the news and astonished his local oligarch puppet-master by actually reading the bills he was about to vote on, then making up his own mind. He was part of generation that took citizenship seriously and kept itself informed.

…But Christine O’Donnell is not like that. She is attractive, to some, because she doesn’t know anything. She couldn’t name a Supreme Court decision she disagreed with, not even Roe v. Wade. There is no way she could ever be confused with a member of the elites; there is no way she could be confused with an above average high school student. Her ignorance, therefore, makes her authentic–the holy grail of latter-day American politics: she’s a real person, not like those phony politicians.

People look to the individual narrative and ignore the rest, unable or unwilling to examine the content of politics like a grown-up, and thereby encourage and reinforce politicians with nothing more than a pretty smile and a Manichean worldview to offer.  Expertise is irrelevant.  The origin of this problem, as Christopher Hitchens points out, lies in the electorate’s ostensible search for “authenticity” or whatever other juicy tidbits are actually uncovered as a result of any search anyone is willing to undertake.  Whereas the Founding Fathers supposed that the most virtuous Americans would seek office because of the glory and honor that would accompany such positions, today’s electoral process produces far more indignity and ingratitude than any rational or talented person would willingly impose upon themselves.

Consider: What normal person would consider risking their career and their family life in order to undergo the incessant barrage of intrusive questioning about every aspect of their lives since well before college? To face the constant pettifogging and chatter of Facebook and Twitter and have to boast of how many false friends they had made in a weird cyberland? And if only that was the least of it. Then comes the treadmill of fundraising and the unending tyranny of the opinion polls, which many media systems now use as a substitute for news and as a means of creating stories rather than reporting them. And, even if it “works,” most of your time in Washington would be spent raising the dough to hang on to your job. No wonder that the best lack all conviction.

This attitude in politics mirrors another unnerving trend exhibited by some Baby Boomers and Gen Xers, a trend much less susceptible to easy definition or empirical proof: that the Protestant, almost Darwinian version of the American Dream–of working hard to provide a better life for one’s offspring–has morphed into a form of competitiveness with one’s children, where parents seek to hold back their children to prevent them from surpassing their own achievements.  A substantial segment of America does not want to be rendered obsolete, even if meritocratic forces would leave them by the wayside.  So instead of a human meritocracy, we have the circus of continuous revelatory exposés about individuals’ personal lives, which leaves policy to be addressed by those entities that lack the basic human morbidity: organized and incorporated interests.  It makes one wonder what exactly the Citizens are actually United around.

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 20, 2010 11:12 am

    Why does Pesci look like a photoshopped creation in his own music video?

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