HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

June 30, 2008
From Liberty Street

Primary Political Duty

John Turner


Thumbing through some notes taken a couple months ago, I encountered this observation, proclaimed during a political talk show: "Obama has to show that he respects why Americans love guns." I don't recall exactly who said it. Maybe Howard Fineman; maybe David Gregory. But that doesn't matter. Regardless of the author, it's a perfect reflection of the mindset of American political reporting.

It rises from the bedrock assumption that politicians not only cannot, but should not, be either reliable or truthful men and women. Their overweening duty, rising so high over all others the latter are completely eclipsed, is to fawn over the American people.

Do Americans love guns? Then if you want to be a political leader you've got to respect their reason for loving guns. It may be dumb as hell; it may be murderous; it may be the result of pure bigotry. Still, if you're going to be a politician, you've got to respect it.  In the minds of the political punditry, that's what democracy means. It also means you've got to respect an irrational dislike of taxes, even if it means that the people are required to spend far more on the damages arising from a polluted environment and crumbling infrastructure than they ever would on taxes to provide healthy, well-maintained social conditions. It means you have to respect a juvenile infatuation with military conquest even though it is lessening our real strength all round the world. It means you have to keep on tantalizing people with the fantasy that they can all become billionaires rather than working to provide a reasonable distribution of wealth.

These and other immature pipe dreams are the reasons why, in the United States right now, we cannot have good government.

The truth that we cannot have good government becomes more evident every day. Even deep-dyed establishment figures are acknowledging that we can't. Yesterday, for example, in the New York Times, Tom Friedman said this: "My fellow Americans: We are a country in debt and in decline - not terminal, not irreversible, but in decline. Our political system seems incapable of producing long-range answers to big problems or big opportunities. We are the ones who need a better-functioning democracy - more than the Iraqis and Afghans. We are the ones in need of nation-building. It is our political system that is not working."

When something becomes evident to a heretofore cheerleader like Friedman, then it's really evident.

You'll notice, though, that Mr. Friedman does not say why we're in debt and decline, or why our political system is incapable of producing answers. That would require acknowledging something he is still too much of an establishment man to face. Our government is largely in the hands of those who seized their positions by fawning. And fawners seldom have the courage to speak the truth or to take difficult positions. They find their advantage by praising the people, no matter how foolish large sectors the people may have become.

At the moment, we don't know much about the intelligence of the American people because no politician will attempt to appeal to intelligence or to criticize stupidity. Every politician would just as soon have a vote cast for idiotic reasons as to have one that comes from sensible analysis. In fact, it's worse than that. Virtually every politician would rather have the stupid vote than the intelligent vote because, though they would never confess it, most politicians believe, in their heart of hearts, that there are more stupid votes than there are intelligent ones.

There's a certain crass practicality in the stance, but, over the long run, it's a formula for disaster. The more politicians crave stupid votes the more they send out appeals to stupid voters. As a result, the electorate learns little from the debates of politicians. In a good system of government, a leading duty of politicians would be to inform the voters -- to teach them so they can become more intelligent about political issues. If that duty were being fulfilled, after some development, politicians would have the luxury of telling the truth more often. Truth might become a political asset rather than a gaffe.

Current American politicians have abdicated that responsibility in favor of fawning.  It's not easy to see what will turn them around. Now and then, genuine crises stiffen the backbones of some political leaders. And the people are affected so directly they develop a taste for knowing what's actually happening. Whether the current financial crisis can have that effect is not yet certain. At the moment fawning is still in the saddle, and it looks like it will dominate the campaigns between now and November. And there's not much doubt that political journalists will be cheering it on.


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