It's the Democracy, Stupid?
by Jack Landsman, Thu Sep 02, 2010 at 11:15:58 PM EDT
One of the most offensive tendencies of beleaguered establishmentarians faced with the utter collapse of their precious conventional wisdom is to bemoan—or to rethink, they might protest—this brilliant representative democracy bequeathed to us by the Founders in unabashedly elitist tones. To be sure, this line of thinking often bears the appearance of innocuous experimental thought but bespeaks, at best, fecklessness, and more likely are signs of intellectual depravity. As a liberal—affected by what may be called trademark self-flagellation—I am wont to focus on this insidious tic when it is found on the left. Conservatives and reactionaries craving for the relative warmth of authoritarianism is, to me, rather unsurprising and therefore barely worth noting. What can we expect from “small-government” folk with a nary a peep to say about the warrantless surveillance of American citizens or the stupid morality of strictly-enforced marijuana prohibition?
I can think of at least three prominent liberals that gave voice to this dangerous nonsense recently—the first of whom is quite brilliant: Woody Allen (Manhattan, Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors—I mean, c’mon!); Tom Friedman, the unfortunate suck-up; and Joe Klein in Time magazine just today.
I had been minding my own business, reading Time’s mild-mannered attempt to explain what has come to be regarded as Barack Obama’s stunning failure as president, when the title “How Can a Democracy Solve Tough Problems?” on the right side of the screen seemed to lunge at me. (Who knew the unlikely symbiosis of ganja and righteous indignation could be that kickass?)
If you asked me, what's the most disappointing thing Barack Obama has done as President? I'd say, He appointed a "blue-ribbon" commission to study the federal deficit. I mean, how boring and worthy and worthless! Such commissions are an instant admission of defeat: We lack the political will to deal with (insert long-term crisis here), so we're appointing a blue-ribbon commission to study it. The process is inevitable, especially in these days of rising partisan contentiousness. A consensus won't be reached on the really tough issues. A high-minded, peripheral idea or two may emerge — frosting on a soap bubble — and then evaporate ... or worse, actually be implemented, as was the 9/11 commission's foolishly redundant suggestion of a Directorate of National Intelligence (DNI), plopped atop the CIA and military spook agencies. No doubt yet another commission will eventually be appointed to study abolishing the DNI.
Let’s rest here for a second. While this represents a digression from our main point here, Joe Klein’s treatment of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform as some sort of passing joke requires special attention and derision. Rather than being a source of amusement, this commission is a sinister assembly co-chaired by former senator Al Simpson (who’s more like the comically evil Creed Bratton than Homer’s dad as far as I’m concerned) and includes the likes of Paul Ryan, the House Republicans’ resident budget wonk. (Yes, there’s only one—and even he demonstrates how carelessly that encomium is bestowed these days.)
Obama’s administration had originally envisioned a binding role for the commission and was thwarted but the potential damage remains stark nonetheless. Those of us committed to sending this president, via primary, back to Hyde Park can only hope the incoming crowd of prodigious reactionary busybodies, endowed with all sorts of investigative tools, will inadvertently save FDR’s legacy—precisely the way Miss Lewinsky once did in a roundabout way.
But what if there were a machine, a magical contraption that could take the process of making tough decisions in a democracy, shake it up, dramatize it and make it both credible and conclusive? As it happens, the ancient Athenians had one. It was called the kleroterion, and it worked something like a bingo-ball selector. Each citizen — free males only, of course — had an identity token; several hundred were picked randomly every day and delegated to make major decisions for the polis. But that couldn't happen now, could it? Most of our decisions are too complicated and technical for mere civilians to make, aren't they?
Actually, the Chinese coastal district of Zeguo (pop. 120,000) has its very own kleroterion, which makes all its budget decisions. The technology has been updated: the kleroterion is a team led by Stanford professor James Fishkin. Each year, 175 people are scientifically selected to reflect the general population. They are polled once on the major decisions they'll be facing. Then they are given a briefing on those issues, prepared by experts with conflicting views. Then they meet in small groups and come up with questions for the experts — issues they want further clarified. Then they meet together in plenary session to listen to the experts' response and have a more general discussion. The process of small meetings and plenary is repeated once more. A final poll is taken, and the budget priorities of the assembly are made known and adopted by the local government. It takes three days to do this. The process has grown over five years, from a deliberation over public works (new sewage-treatment plants were favored over road-building) to the whole budget shebang. By most accounts it has succeeded brilliantly, even though the participants are not very sophisticated: 60% are farmers. The Chinese government is moving toward expanding it into other districts.
A signature beauty of the American system is that we have wonderfully smart mechanisms that allow for the change that is often necessary. What’s required beyond this is mobilization of the citizenry. But reading Joe Klein’s possible prescription makes me think his sarcasm may have gone past his snark regarding the president’s blue-ribbon commission.
One of the major problems we have to contend with in this country is a corporate media which has failed in its ostensible responsibility of educating voters and facilitating the substantive exchange of ideas—intentionally so, the cynical among us will assert. How will such a problem be ameliorated by a bunch of “experts” stuffing a relative few of us randomly-selected plebs in a room for the purposes of personally presenting our choices to us? At least the false choice between politicians provides us with the occasional adventurous and drunken Election Night. This fantasy experiment of Joe Klein’s sounds like something straight out of some sterile utopian future where sex is banned. Um, no thanks.
While the rejection of the frighteningly vague, “non-political” jive of manipulative demagogues like Glenn Beck is obvious, it’s also imperative that we dismiss the notion that explains Klein’s angst and that has been rapidly gaining currency of late: It’s the notion of the ungovernability of the United States. It’s a convenient trope that characterized the malaise of our sad-sack 39th president and was thought to have been swept out of town with the advent of his successor, the senile reactionary from California.
Democratic politics is often ugly and never simple, but what else is there? I personally prefer the Iowa caucuses and such to the beautiful minds of Joe Klein and Tom Friedman—and feel no need to apologize for it either.