Posts Tagged ‘The Assault on Reason’

Obama’s Promise Was To Break the Hold the Idiocrats Have On Our Society

Tuesday, August 18th, 2009

It’s pretty clear that our national conversation, our national debate is broken – as Al Gore persuasively argued in The Assault on Reason. On health care – for example – we’re arguing over distractions and barely touching on the issues at stake.

When Barack Obama ran for office, he won in a large part because he convinced Americans he could change the debate – that he didn’t have a stake in the Baby Boomer arguments that had dominated our political debate since the 1980 election – that he would tackle the long-term festering issues these Baby Boomer debates had put off. This was the promise of Barack Obama, the source of people’s hope, the attraction he had for the young and indeed for the aging Baby Boomers themselves.

During his election campaign, he proved at least once that  he could rise above the vitriol of base politics that had accustomed the people to expect Clintons and Bushes to exchange presidencies in dirty campaigns. He broke the cycle that threatened to destroy his candidacy with his speech on race. In the end, he also prevailed over the forces of xenophobia, of racism, of bigotry. The fact that he won was extraordinary and proved something else – that not only was Obama able to raise the level of the national conversation – but that he could inspire a majority of the country to give his new approach a chance. For those who supported him, his failure to change this conversation is the root of their disappointment in him. I still think it’s early – but it has become clear that if Obama cannot fix our national conversation, he will not be able to accomplish most of what he has set out to do.

On health care, Paul Krugman has been gloating that he predicted this – that he knew the right wing would throw everything they had at Obama and at every one of his policies. But Obama never promised to stop people from throwing stuff at him. His promise was to rise above it.

This is what is the base issue at stake in this health care fight – more profound than our unsustainably increasing costs or the thousands who die each year because they are without coverage.

Fareed Zakaria pointed out that in a crisis our system proved it could act. But the financial crisis did not prove our system could handle a crisis; instead, it proved that we were lucky to have individuals in place who appropriated whatever power they needed. And it was the least accountable person in the room – Ben Bernanke – who had the most power and used it the most. Congress, responding to popular pressure, almost destroyed the whole process.

Obama – if he is to tackle any issues after health care – must break this budding idiocracy that derails every attempt to have an adult conversation; he must deflate the growing fears. I can see only one way he can do this – or at least begin to: He has to take the health care bill – and get it through with a strong public option and with end of life counseling. He has to call, “Bullshit.” Explain to the country again the point of these programs and what they will do – and ask anyone who experiences otherwise to contact the White House.

They called Medicare and Social Security and the entire New Deal “socialism” and “tyranny” too. And now they are broadly popular and considered key components of our market-based system. To break these idiocratic forces, Obama needs to force these controversial measures through and allow the Republicans opposing it to demagogue it in every way possible. Then make sure there are strong transparency measures in place. And then let those who predicted a Holocaust look foolish. It’s the first step to discrediting their methods and reforming our national conversation.

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What Do Matt Yglesias, Ezra Klein, and Che Guevera Have in Common?

Friday, July 31st, 2009

 Answer: Not much.

But Democracy in America’s anonymous blogger seems to think that some of liberal bloggers Ezra Klein’s and Matt Yglesias’s recent posts suggest a new and profound (indeed revolutionary) disenchantment with our means of governance. DiA cites Klein who recently wrote:

[Health care] like climate change, is a litmus test for our government. Both are serious, foreseeable and solvable threats to our society. One threatens to bankrupt the country. The other threatens irreversible damage to the planet we live on. Responding to such threats is the test of a political system. And our system will fail it. We will not avert catastrophic climate change. We will not protect ourselves from health-care inflation.

Yglesias recently wrote this post I’ve noted before explaining how our current media-political system can be manipulated so easily by people acting in bad faith – and how that leads to bad policy outcomes.

DiA tries to summarize this generation of pundits and policy wonks – led by Klein and Yglesias:

Mr Klein exemplifies the generation of young left-leaning policy wonks, journalists and activists who have been formed politically by the reaction against Bush-era conservatism, and for whom the Obama presidency represents the first experience of wielding political power. Like Mr Klein, many of these young progressives are fundamentally moderate, process-oriented wonks who, long before the Obama campaign even began, had accepted that the pragmatic limitations of real-world American politics rule out any utopian, or even first-best, solutions to most public-policy problems. They have happily dedicated themselves to figuring out what kinds of reform are possible within the constraints of corporate and interest-group lobbying, ideological and partisan divisions, and America’s kludgey, creaking 220-year-old machinery of government.

But now, DiA suggests, they have abandoned this moderation and want a revolution – that they have become disillusioned about our media-political processes due to Obama’s lack of success.

Certainly, Klein and Yglesias are extremely critical of the processes by which policy is created and by which the public views and understands policy debates. They believe that this system is broken. But both believed this before Barack Obama’s recent troubles – as Yglesias himself pointed out in response to DiA.

What DiA is missing is that reformists (towards both the right and left, but here I will look only at the left) have long been extremely critical of our media-political process works. Just two days ago, in The American Prospect, executive editor Mark Schmitt wrote:

[T]he idea that America’s “existing democratic institutions are strong enough to deliver accountability ” flies in the face of all observed reality. For at least eight years, those institutions consistently failed to deliver accountability, and the Department of Justice and courts likewise failed to punish some of the greatest abuses of power in our history…

As Al Gore wrote in his book describing The Assault on Reason:

American democracy is now in danger—not from any one set of ideas, but from unprecedented changes in the environment within which ideas either live and spread, or wither and die. I do not mean the physical environment; I mean what is called the public sphere, or the marketplace of ideas.

It is simply no longer possible to ignore the strangeness of our public discourse. I know I am not alone in feeling that something has gone fundamentally wrong.

Or look at Lawrence Lessig’s lecture on Corruption – which eloquently makes the case for “disinterestedness” as one of America’s key founding principles which has been since lost. Read Glenn Greenwald’s blog – which constantly points out the deep and serious faults in our media-political processes. Obama himself made a number of these arguments. Virtually every intellectual reformist has a “theory of what’s wrong” – and what none of them seem to disagree with is that something is wrong.

While in other times, reformers may have focused more on accomplishing something regarding important issues – temperance, Wall Street greed, environmental issues, discrimination – today, the central problem facing reformers is how to reform the system itself. This is the essence of the reform movement today – from Obama to Gore, Lessig to Yglesias, Klein to van Heuvel.

Reformers have presented compelling critiques of how the media presents issues; of how Congress deals with issues; of how long-term problems such as an increasing number of uninsured, spiraling health care costs, climate change, copyright expansion, and many others are ignored or marginalized because any attempt to address these issues involves significant obstacles and risks in the present for an uncertain future benefit. One of the key beliefs that makes reformers reformers today is their understanding that America’s political system is broken and that our traditional democratic institutions just aren’t up to the job of managing serious and difficult areas and making rational, long-term decisions when the payoff only comes after policy-makers are out of office.

This idea was the basis of my post yesterday discussing Obama’s focus on outsourcing authority to independent, technocratic institutions as a way of getting around our broken media-political system.

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How the Media and the Politicians Failed to Understand the Detroit Bailout

Monday, December 1st, 2008

Al Gore, in his book, Assault on Reason, described a media and political focus on “gotcha” journalism, on gaffes, on irrelevancies and personal scandals, on the Freak Show – rather than a focus on long-term issues, on character, and on principles as one of the major factors that has led to our current crises. “News” coverage is dominated by questions of whether this or that politician has a mistress (he probably does) or whether this or that entertainer is secretly going out with this or that sports star. Our news has become tabloid.

If, as the drafters of our Constitution believed, a well-informed citizenry is essential to the proper functioning of any nation, then our nation clearly cannot be functioning properly.

This lack of good information, this focus on the trivial over the significant, was evident when the CEOs of Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors went to Washington to beg for handouts. As Jon Stewart sagely observed in a pox-on-all-your-houses bit:

Unable to understand the actual problem, Congress seizes on tangential details for grandstanding purposes.

[Cue tape of various Congressmen expressing various types of outrage in semi-novel ways regarding the fact that each CEO flew to Washington in a separate private jet.]

The media coverage did manage to convey a few things:

  1. All these big shot CEOs travel by private jet.
  2. The Big Three automakers support, directly and indirectly, some 2.5 million American jobs.
  3. These American car companies made a big mistake by focusing on gas-guzzlers on the assumption that oil prices would remain low indefinitely.

Everything else was clouded in some confusion – not all of which is the media’s fault. Many economists asserted that they would normally want the government to avoid bailing out these automakers, but in this economy, believed the government must act. Some opinion-makers blamed the automakers troubles primarily on union-negotiated legacy costs – on the various deferred wages and other forms of deferred compensation the automakers entered into contracts to provide. But what seemed lacking from either the Congressional hearings or the media coverage was any serious and sustained attention to the problems themselves.