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Thursday, April 21, 2005

what democracy?

Brian Goldsmith's column today was important to read, but not for the obvious reason. He wrote about the fact that Republicans have entered the new age of politics as marketing, focus grouping and demographically targeting and splicing every little thing into advertising tactics. He argued that the democrats, on the other hand, are still living in a world of impressions:
If you were a liberal, but a realist, and, having finished both lunches with the party chairmen, you stopped to think about the contrast: Warren Buffett for the Republicans and Al Roker for the Democrats, wouldn’t you be worried too?
I think it's a fair point and, as someone who doesn't like losing and doesn't believe in Republican ideology, I take Brian's point. But isn't there something fundamentally wrong with this? Is this democracy? (more in expanded post)

Walter Lippmann wrote in Public Opinion the early 20s that we needed an elite class of political scientists to determine truth in our politics, because people were too easily manipulated without them:
But what is propaganda, if not the effort to alter the picture to which men respond, to substitute one social pattern for another?
Lippmann was writing because he'd seen the way in which people were manipulated by the government during WWI, because he knew that the power of elites to change the way people perceived the world and therefore control them was powerful. That is not democracy (see Daily Show video below). I'm not sure another elite class of political scientists will do the trick. It used to be that we looked to the media for that sort of thing. In any event, we've got to figure out a way to fix American politics.

I'm all for Democrats learning how to win. I also am not of the camp that thinks that because this politics gone marketing is awful we shouldn't do it; that's just a formula for becoming the permanent minority. But we have to start having a conversation in this country, in both parties, about how long we're willing to allow this to go on before we decide that we really can't call ourselves a democracy anymore.


At 12:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Preach it my brother! I agree with every word of this.

Whence, then, a political elite that can't be pilloried as 'elitists'? How to establish true credibility at a time when university authority is among the most suspicious things to an entire chattering class of anti-intellectuals? Where does empiricism find not a home, but a forum?

I think the media needs to rediscover its power to champion truth. A new category of show and a new category of writing should arise that is only FACT; but -- and this is the tricky part -- it must be encased in spin. We are at a moment in history where the issue is no longer how to market candidates (as you say, that process has failed to produce reasonable and majoritarian outcomes of any kind) but how to market empiricism and the reliable substrate of facts on which the electorate might begin to stand on its own two feet.


PS. Surely marketing and demagogy have been important before, and elections have been decided by them. The Gilded Age was pretty wack in this fashion, and to some extent so was every other presidential election ever. And the press has always been to some extent part of the problem.
BUT the world has never been so globalized with no counterbalancing power to check our demagogues. And it's precisely in the foreign-policy sphere that demagogy gets so effective; bugbears within eventually get the vote and you can't get elected by scaring people with them. But bugbears elsewhere can be demagogued about forever.

In a word, then, the stakes are simply too high now for democracy to function without some sort of concerted industry of knowledge merchants. I nominate Andrew as Baron #1.

At 2:55 PM, Blogger andrew golis said...

I actually think Dewey is right about this (I just wrote a paper about Lippmann and Dewey, can you tell?). The "elite" needs to get its sorry asses out of the ivy league (at least some times) and get into the world. It's simultaneously the only way that the "elite" can ensure that it doesn't develop an agenda of its own that doesn't oppress the non-elite as well as the only way that it can gain credibility with the rest of the country. The reason people hate the ivory tower types? They've never met them! The reason they've never met them? The ivory tower types are selfishly elitist.

At 6:19 PM, Blogger O_Pombo said...

Just got back from a trip to Cuba (you know, that paradise island with great music, great cigars and great parties which you aren`t allowed to visit, ha ha!), which means I`ve been exposed to some serious political propaganda and hardcore brainwashing (naa, it`s really not that frightening!) and even though it`s kind of late for that, I congratulate you on your new blog. I`ll keep an eye on it.

At 10:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

First, a caveat: this point is parenthetical at best, and more in reference to Brian's column than Golis's post...

The premise to this column is fairly specious, in that Ken Mehlman was at Harvard two weeks ago, and led an hour and a half long IOP study group answering the question Brian posed at the start of his column, ("Why did Bush win?"), which Brian attended (or so I'm told - if I'm wrong, my apologies).

So, fine, Mehlman gave a great presentation, and you can absolutely argue that he's a smart guy, and that Republican's are very good at what they do. But why this certainty that if Dean had come and similarly led an hour and a half long study group on (or, as the column's device had it, a lunch discussing) why Bush won, he would offer only a paragraph's worth of inaccurate insights and then "would be finished"?

The column is comparing an hour and a half long, off the record presentation Ken Mehlman made (to a group of Harvard students he could assume were very politically intelligent) with a handful of Brian's observations of Dean (I'm guessing C-SPAN broadcasts/newspaper summaries of various public speeches, Dean's appearance at Jeff Amestoy's study group to talk about civil unions, maybe Dean's Hardball appearance in December 2003?). None of these gave Dean the chance, as Mehlman has had, to explain in full (and off the record) his answer to the question "Why did Bush win?"

So, it's a little like me spending an hour and a half watching Golis juggle, then writing a column calling Clay a bad juggler because the last time I saw Clay he was yo-yo-ing. For a premise like this to work, you have to have semi-equivalent knowledge of both Mehlman and Dean.

(I don't, by the way, necessarily think that the overall thrust of the column is inaccurate - Mehlman is scarily talented, and the Republicans are maddeningly good at running campaigns. But I don't see how glorifying Mehlman and caricaturing Dean is going to get us anywhere.)


At 2:27 AM, Blogger andrew golis said...

I'm a way better juggler than clay.

At 3:15 AM, Blogger Jamal Sprucewood said...

That's only because he's preoccupied with popping packing bubbles.


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