Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Taibbi doesn’t understand democracy

Matt Taibbi has a terrific article savaging modern campaign reporting. He's of course 100% correct, and his observations are perspicacious, but he fundamentally does not understand what democracy is all about.

Democracy has never been about "government of the people, by the people and for the people." This was a bullshit platitude when Lincoln said it, it's never been true, and it never will be true. Every government since the invention of politics has been a government of the elite, by the elite and for the elite. This practice has been so thoroughly sanctified by millennia of practice that it's not worth getting upset about.

Democracy is about setting a slightly higher floor on how poorly the elite can govern.

In the bad old days, before the Glorious Revolution, the King could govern as he pleased so long as he didn't actually piss the people off sufficiently that a rival could raise an army in rebellion. It is a sad—but again so common as to be entirely unsurprising—commentary that every third King actually did govern so poorly that a rival could raise a rebel army.

What democracy actually does is set a higher floor for government ineptitude, corruption and oppression of the people. Instead of raising an army and actually fighting a rebellion, a government can be only so bad so that the people don't actually vote them out of office. Democracy does not ensure good government, it only prevents the very worst government.

It's entirely possible that founders of the Constitution had some bullshit utopian notion about the citizens actually running the government, or at least setting the broad policy agenda; it's also possible they were entirely realistic.

The people as a whole do not care about The Issues. They might care about some particular issue when a mass movement gains traction. But even then, they care about that issue not because they've rationally deliberated the merits, but because the incompetence of the current government has caused sufficient anomie, alienation and frustration in the populace that they latch onto whatever bullshit idea can give them the vague hope and group identity denied by the mainstream status quo.

In this regard, democracy actually works: No established democratic country has ever changed its government by rebellion. There has, to my knowledge, been only a single civil war (our own) in a democratic country, and even that was due not to the incompetence of the government, but rather because the American South had a socio-economic context so different from the North that they formed a separate national identity.

The politics of democracy has not in modern times become theater. It has always been theater. It is only now that the theatrical character of politics has become explicit.

10 comments:

  1. Ha. I was about to write a comment that said, "Cynical, but true." And then I saw that you'd labeled it under "cynicism."

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  2. It's entirely possible that founders of the Constitution had some bullshit utopian notion about the citizens actually running the government, or at least setting the broad policy agenda; it's also possible they were entirely realistic.

    I think it was Bruce Sterling, in his guise has a futurist, who wrote an essay about technocratic government. I thought it was a very perceptive piece: Essentially, the functions of government are actually run by specialized professionals. We don't elect the people who decide how policy is implemented -- often the same people who are deciding the day-to-day policies that affect our lives.

    A technocratic government is apt to sow discontent among the mass movements you mentioned: The technocrat's very identity is tied up in how well they do their job, not how motivated they are to abide by ideology. I learn this anew every day in the course of my work.

    The Republicans' greatest strength has been in recognizing that since, as a republic, mass movements can elect the people who oversee the technocracy and -- unfortunately for the technocrats -- appoint the officials in charge, a mass movement can move to corrupt or undermine the technocracy for a long time. Many thinkers -- including the Founders and folks like Eric Hoffer -- were more concerned with what an entrenched bureaucratic class might do with the power it wields. The compromise -- democracy and political appointments -- didn't recognize mass movements as the pernicious danger they could be when they manage to corrupt both the legislature and the executive.

    Ultimately, I think republican democracy is a noble and far-sighted but ultimately flawed response to human collectivization. It's a good foundation, but like all foundations, needs building upon.

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  3. We don't elect the people who decide how policy is implemented -- often the same people who are deciding the day-to-day policies that affect our lives.

    Anyone who's watched Yes, (Prime) Minister should understand this fact. If you haven't watched these series, you have no clue as to how government operates.

    The technocrat's very identity is tied up in how well they do their job, not how motivated they are to abide by ideology.

    A technocratic elite would still be an elite, just as self-serving as any other. It is because the technocrats are not in charge that our immediate self-interest is in doing our jobs well.

    The compromise -- democracy and political appointments -- didn't recognize mass movements as the pernicious danger they could be when they manage to corrupt both the legislature and the executive.

    I disagree. I think our democracy is doing precisely the job it was meant to do: containing the damage and ensuring that we get Bush, not Hitler or Stalin.

    Democracy is not about promoting good government, it's about suppressing the very worst government.

    "Good government" is a logical impossibility anyway. To have good government, you have to have good people, but if you have good people, you don't need a government at all.

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  4. To continue to think we have democratic government and we elect 'leaders' is a relic of a monarchial past. Suppose we begin to think of presidents, ministers, lawmakers, governors not as having 'powers' but as just being 'hired' to provide services. What is the difference, really, between your president and your pothole repairer?

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  5. Phil: I disagree that it's our thinking (at least our thinking about our society, as opposed to the thinking which society comprises) which is a "relic"; it seems rather to be that our society has some similarities, specifically governmental leadership, with our monarchical past.

    The difference between a President and a pothole repairer is that the President can put actual people in actual prisons; not only can he do so, we want him to do so. Anyone who has such power is inevitably going to style himself a "leader".

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  6. I think Bush may be on the verge of defining just about how bad government under our system can be.

    Your post is true enough to make me depressed.

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  7. the President can put actual people in actual prisons; not only can he do so, we want him to do so

    The only people/prison I can think of where that 'power' is claimed is "GITMO".

    But a president does have: "Power to Grant Reprieves and Pardons"

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  8. Sorry, I was speaking metaphorically. I was using the president as a synecdoche for the government, a body unique in its essential characteristic of having a monopoly on the use of force.

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  9. dbb: There's no doubt our present government is unusually poor. The elite is going to have to do some hard work to get their shit together and govern this country in an acceptable manner.

    Our government will continue to be bad, and continue to get worse, so long as the commercial media keeps feeding us blatant lies.

    Delaying whatever reforms are necessary (and I have no confidence at all that any of the Democratic candidates are interested in reforming the media) only brings closer a more radical revolution.

    It will be the true test of democracy whether such a revolution can occur without substantial violence or civil war.

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  10. I think our problem right now is, as you said, with the media, not with government. Blogging is starting to change that - I read Glenn Greenwald regularly - he really digs deep into things and now that he's on Salon, the MSM is starting to take notice of him and at least trying to respond to him. Mostly it is denials, but maybe they'll start to change their ways.

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