Saturday, August 28, 2010


What Tocqueville underestimated was the power of money in modern politics and the marketing genius of modern politicians, which have freed democratic politics from the constraints of the actual interests of the majority.
James Kwak "Democracy in America"
I understand this to be more or less an article of faith in progressive and liberal circles and I understand the sentiment. But I feel that it's slightly incorrect. I'm of the opinion that Tocqueville overestimated the willingness of the modern American to be an active participant in the political process, and their willingness to expend effort and resources on oversight. It is a lack of public oversight, more than anything else, that has "freed democratic politics from the constraints of the actual interests of the majority." Money and marketing genius may count for a lot, but they can't save you when you're actually called upon to produce results by someone who understands what results they're looking for and is willing and able to punish you for not providing it.

No government can routinely be trusted to look out for the interests of people who do not participate in it. True, there have been instances where there has been active protection of a non-participatory group, but those are exceptions, and notable ones at that. The American political Left tends to focus on the corrosive effects of money and effective marketing, because, in my opinion, it has bought into the idea of political "noblesse oblige;" the idea that the politically savvy have an obligation to look out for the interests of their fellow citizens, who cannot be expected to look out for themselves. (When the Right uses the idea of a paternalistic elite that dictates policies to the masses as a bogeyman, they're trotting out an only slightly exaggerated caricature of Progressive thinking.) But there is a problem with the constant search for a Good Shepherd. Shepherds wear wool and (along with sheepdogs) eat mutton, too.


august said...

I think the left has inherited some of the old Scottish Enlightenment notions of a marketplace of ideas in which the best ideas win. That tradition tends to discount things like identity and sense of connection to one's roots. In recent incarnations it has also involved a distrust of religion. When I see left and right disagreeing, that's what I usually see as the biggest disconnect.

Take the history of California (I should admit I've been reading Joan Didion on the subject, so it's fresh on my mind). Many Californians will tell the story of frontier self-reliance, individual virtues, and overcoming the rigors of the westward journey. Many (eg Reagan) will say that this was accomplished without government help. My recollection is that you live in Washington, and my memory of Seattle was that there were a number of people with vivid stories of the frontier struggles of their grandparents, and this shaped the politics of the place.

Maybe money figures strongly in leftist imagination in part because of residual Marxist thought. But it's also striking how money has been written out of America's myths about itself, and I can see how the left (I'll include myself here) would want to spend some energy putting it back in. In the California case -- the federal government subsidized land reclamation and irrigation projects, so that basically the entire central valley is one big present to a wealthy few from Uncle Sam (the land was sold for something like $1 an acre, but the money was refunded if you drained the land within three years). And that fact about California seems to me a metaphor for what people don't see or remember about Reagan -- the awful recession at the beginning of his presidency, the enormous deficits his tax cuts created (while his spending cuts were nowhere near on the same scale), and a set of military policies that continue to cause problems today. Just as California was as much government subsidy (even now, taxpayers support the rice crop) as frontier individualism, Reaganomics was more big government on loan than small government. I see real gains to following the money.

When I get into arguments with conservatives, that's usually the crux of the thing. Their sense of identity is simply different from mine. Identity is not really the sort of thing you can argue about, and so lefties such as myself tend to try to point out some ways that their ways of thinking about America might not be true, a process that often involves following the money. It comes across as condescending, and I don't think folks are wrong to feel angry about being condescended to. We're all missing the point.

As I am skipping over your point. I think you are right that participation in the democratic process is important, but I suspect left and right would disagree about what it means. Military service, education, loyalty, social programs, voting?

I feel like the best I can do nowadays is try to give an honest account of why I think the way I do, and try to make sure I'm as critical of my own myths as I am of others.

august said...

I just realized I'm repeating an argument that, a couple of post down, you note is well-worn. Sorry.

Aaron said...

No need for apologies. It's all good.