Democracy’s Achilles’ heel

A demoralized Andrew Sullivan reader:

For the last six years, I’ve watched a fear-mongering fool manipulate us, ruin our standing in the world and abuse our principles. It’s been hard to feel good about our country. But when Obama won Iowa and surged in the New Hampshire polls I thought I’d underestimated us. For the first time in my lifetime, my cynical generation was turning out heavily to vote. We were choosing, above all else, to be inspired.

Now, the Clinton campaign has gradually and expertly eviscerated him, and it turns out we’re not that country. We’re still easily manipulated; we’re still scared; and we’re still a little racist. It’s hard not to resent her for that.

I’m not an American, but I feel just as demoralized at present.

Another quote. This time from Dick Cheney, as White House Chief of Staff, in 1976:

Principle is okay up to a certain point, but principle doesn’t do any good if you lose.

Are the Clintons likewise unprincipled? Sam Boyd asks the right question, and supplies the right answer:

Does Clinton really think Obama is a corrupt Chicago pol who secretly hates abortion and wants to cut social security and Medicare? No.

This is exactly what I’ve been thinking. I asked myself:  Do the Clintons really believe that Obama waffled in his opposition to the Iraq war? Of course not! They know this is a clear point of differentiation between Hillary’s candidacy and Barack’s:  Clinton voted for the Iraq war while Obama stuck his neck out by opposing it, at a time when that was a politically unacceptable position. The principled and far-sighted stand which Obama took at the time had emerged as one of the key strengths of his campaign. The Clintons knowingly — cynically — distorted his record to take that asset away from him.

Do the Clintons honestly believe that Obama approves of specific Reagan-era policies:  on Social Security, minimum wage, and Medicare? They are perfectly aware that Obama said no such thing but they’re eager to put those words in his mouth.

Democracy relies on the good faith of those who campaign for public office. Democracy cannot prosper if politicians are cynical enough to misrepresent the facts for the sake of electoral advantage.

It’s as simple as that, and it matters that much.

Hilzoy argues that the Clintons are displaying contempt for voters:  “manipulat[ing] them into casting votes they might not cast if people were not telling them lies.”

The Clinton campaign apparently thought that presenting Hillary Clinton herself, and saying true things about Obama, might not be enough to convince people to vote for her. …

Lying in an election is basically a way of saying:  we know how you ought to vote, and if we can’t get you to vote that way by presenting you with facts and arguments, or even with truthful but emotionally shaded appeals, then we will get you to vote our way by telling you things that are not true.

This is democracy’s Achilles’ heel. Democracy cannot prosper if those who campaign for public office subscribe to Cheney’s dictum:  “Principle is okay up to a certain point, but principle doesn’t do any good if you lose.”

Hilzoy continues by presenting an important thesis:  lying to voters “undermines democracy by placing intolerable burdens on citizens”:

I think that it is our duty as citizens to learn enough to cast informed votes, and that this requires both following the news to some extent and also acquiring enough background knowledge (e.g., of economics) to be able to assess what people say.

However, I do not think that it ought to be our duty as citizens to become complete political junkies, the sorts of people who follow each and every twist and turn in a Presidential campaign. Some of us are like that … but I cannot see any reason at all why everyone should be.

But when candidates tell the kinds of lies that the Clintons have been telling, they place citizens in a position in which the only way to know what is going on is to become political junkies. Being merely informed is not enough:  you have to be the sort of person who actually remembers the article from 2004 that Bill Clinton was referring to when he said that Obama had changed his position on the war, and so forth.

It’s like the tobacco companies’ attempts to confuse people by coming up with research that seemed to show that smoking was harmless. The strategy is to sow enough doubt that people who are not willing to slog through the science, the interminable debates about the methodological deficiencies of this or that study, etc., etc., etc., are likely to come away with a vague sense that the case that smoking is bad isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It is designed to leave people with two options: either spend an awful lot of time working through the science, or be misled.

In so doing, it asks a lot of ordinary people who have lives to lead: it prevents them from just reading stuff, forming a more or less correct view, and acting accordingly.

That’s a brilliant analysis. And the tobacco company illustration is a good one. But in fact, we’ve seen a lot of this sort of thing in recent years.

Climate change is a parallel issue. Our society places great trust in the scientific method of separating fact from prejudice. Now we have a clear scientific consensus with respect to climate change:  but for some unaccountable reason, the public remains confused and sceptical. I wonder how that happened? Could it be that people with a vested interest have engaged in a disinformation campaign, just like the one previously carried out by the tobacco companies?

Likewise the invasion of Iraq. Did the Bush administration invade Iraq because Saddam had weapons of mass destruction? Or was it because of Saddam’s close ties to al Qaeda? Or was it because of his horrific human rights abuses? Or was it for some other, undisclosed motive? The strategy is obvious:  Sow plenty of confusion about your motives, and do whatever you will.

Again with respect to torture. Pretend that the abuses at Abu Ghraib were committed by rogue soldiers. Euphemise torture as “enhanced interrogation”. Talk about the ticking time bomb scenario a lot, even though it is irrelevant to the actual practice of torture. Gloss over the fact that you’re torturing suspects; refer to them all “terrorists”. (Guilty until proven innocent, by which time they’ve already been tortured.) “Lose” videotapes of “interrogation” sessions.

First they said, “We don’t torture.” Then they said, “We do those things, but those things aren’t torture.” Then they defended torture as a necessary evil. Then they rebranded torture as a good.

Hilzoy is right:  the strategy is to place an intolerable burden on voters. Keep the people so confused, so off balance, that they can’t separate the facts from the lies. Reduce voters to ignorance and thus impotence.

But the only people who do such things are the dirty Republicans, right? And not just any Republicans, but the discredited administration of Bush, Rove, Cheney, and Rumsfeld.

That’s why I began this post with the quote from Andrew Sullivan’s demoralized reader. It isn’t just the Bush administration anymore. It’s the Clintons. And the Democrats in general, if they are manipulated into nominating Hillary, which is now the likeliest outcome of the primaries.

Democracy cannot prosper if politicians are cynical enough to misrepresent the facts for the sake of electoral advantage.

Democracy cannot prosper unless voters are clever enough to see what’s happening — and reject the politicians who play these corrosive games.

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Emerging From Babel » Democracy’s Achilles’ heel
  2. Jack
    Jan 27, 2008 @ 03:49:54

    I am not surprised by any of this. That is not to say that I am happy about it either, but it is business as usual for these guys.

    We have had a Bush or Clinton in office since 1980. Now while it is true that for part of that time George H. Bush was the VP, the fact remains that these two families have been a major part of the last several decades.

    I voted for Bill in both elections and I haven’t any regrets about it. But, I won’t say that he didn’t create many of his own issues. He was much slicker than Dubya, but in some ways not all that different.

    Obama is not going to be president. Some people will say that it is because of race, but that is not really true. He is in a dogfight with a female candidate. That is a Black Man and a woman.

    It is not that long ago that a Jewish man ran for VP.

    The point being that Americans spend much less time worrying about race than many would have you think.

    Obama is going to get hit because he is young and inexperienced. it is easy for candidates to talk about all the things that they are going to fix, much harder to provide specific details.

    And Hillary is not going to go away. She is going to come after him with both barrels blazing and I just don’t believe that he has figured out a way to handle that.

    So what we are going to see is a continuation of the candidates attacks upon each other. It is just bloodsport.

    I suppose that what really disappoints me is that I have a hard time believing that anyone is interested in being POTUS for altruistic reasons. But I would be glad to be proven wrong.


  3. Random
    Jan 28, 2008 @ 08:42:02

    Really wanted to respond to this post, but I didn’t know where to start so thought I’d ease my way in with a nitpick.

    “Another quote. This time from Dick Cheney, as White House Chief of Staff, in 1976:

    Principle is okay up to a certain point, but principle doesn’t do any good if you lose.”

    Um. Do you have any sources for this quote other than some rabid anti-Bush/Republican blogs? I googled on it, and got precisely seven responses, of which the closest to a mainstream source is a columnist on arguing that Bush is even worse than Nixon. Do you have any source for it that can actually be traced back to Cheney in a reasonable number of steps?

    But on to the more substantive stuff.

    “Are the Clintons likewise unprincipled? ”

    I’m aware of the the risk of repeating myself, but I really do have to register my continuing amazement at this outrage on the part of many on the left at the discovery that the Clintons are unprincipled liars who will misrepresent the views of an opponent as easily and as casually as they breathe. I mean seriously, where have you been the last 18 years? Where were you when Paula Jones was being smeared as trailer park trash? Where were you when the White House was turned into a B&B for campaign donors? Where were you when Mark Rich was pardoned? Where were you when, despite all these and many, many, other scandals people on the left were giving Clinton some of the highest approval ratings any president has ever seen? It really is the most disgusting hypocrisy to have spent years cheering them on when they do this to the “right” people (you know, such unprincipled right-wing scumbags as, erm, Bob Dole and George Bush Snr.) and then get outraged when they do exactly the same thing to somebody you admire (I’m not saying you personally have done this – I don’t know what your position was in the 1990’s, but it’s clear this describes a very large number of people on the left). There is nothing new under the sun – the Clintons have always been the Clintons, and they always will be. They don’t even make any particular secret about the sort of people they are, all that has changed is that a large section of their fan club has found a new sweetheart.

    As for –

    “Democracy relies on the good faith of those who campaign for public office. ”

    Up to a point yes, as in it’s always better if we can have politicians of principle and character rather than, say, the Clintons (on which issue incidentally what Obama had to say about Reagan won him credit points with me, though I doubt he’d particularly want them. I understood the point he was making and also thought the Clinton distortion of it was ludicrous). However what democracy truly relies on is an engaged and informed citizenry, which isn’t as difficult as you an Hilzoy seem to believe – you don’t have to fact-check every quote or go back to speeches made in 2004 to know that Bill Clinton lies as easily as he breathes and you should therefore factor this in to anything he says. The electorate has a series of rational choices to make, and can usually be replied on to get them right most of the time. Certainly more often than in any other possible system of government (including any idealised system of platonic philosopher kings, which appears to be the implication of what you are saying).

    As for Hilzoy’s article, I agree with much of what he says, however when he follows this (which I agree with):

    “People who do that have no respect for voters, no respect for their right to make up their own minds, and no respect for our democratic system. The only way they will stop is if we stop tolerating it. In a democracy, we get the leaders we deserve. I very much hope we deserve better than the Clintons*.”

    With this (which I most emphatically do not):

    “Footnote: as I have already said, I will support Clinton if nominated, because I think that all the Republicans would be vastly worse… Moreover, since I think the issues at stake in this election are very, very important, I will probably not just support Clinton over any Republican, I’ll donate to her and work for her.”

    He makes it clear that he’s part of the problem, and not part of the solution. The Clintons rely on people like him to get away with what they get away with. By contrast, I have been favourably surprised on my trawls around the net by the number of left wingers I have come across who say that if the election comes down to McCain vs. Clinton they would consider voting Republican for the first time in their lives, this is the sort of thing I was talking about earlier. In which vein I should say that if the election came down to Obama vs. Huckabee I would seriously consider supporting the Democrat for the first time ever…

    (PS Also wanted to comment on the climate change and invasion stuff, but this has gone on for too long already and that would be off topic anyway.)


  4. Stephen
    Jan 28, 2008 @ 19:18:06

    I hope you’re wrong about Obama becoming President. I think his odds are less than 50:50, but I also think they’re a long way from zero.

    I think Ted Kennedy is right: change is in the wind, and Obama is the embodiment of the zeitgeist right now. But I’m not sure the Democrats are responsive to it. In my opinion, if the Democrats nominate Obama, he will wipe the floor with whoever his Republican opponent is in the election campaign. Independents and many Republicans “get it”. But he might not be nominated, because many of the Democrats who are voting in the primaries are oblivious to the zeitgeist.

    • Random:
    I didn’t follow American politics that closely in the 90s. This is the first time in my life that I’ve tuned in during the primaries.

    I had a positive impression of Clinton at the time, but not an informed opinion. And I continue to believe that the attempted impeachment never should have happened. But I’m a Canadian: I am often shocked that Americans are so easily shocked about anything sexual.

    (To me, it was a private matter — between Bill, Hillary, and Monica. Let’s face it, lots of Presidents and other luminaries have been sexually voracious. It’s too bad Bill couldn’t just have said, “You have no right to ask me whether I had sex with that woman.” That would have been the right response.)

    But the Paula Jones “trailer trash” comment (wasn’t that Hillary’s jibe?) is certainly of a piece with the b.s. I’m objecting to here. Obviously a lot of people on the right recognized Clinton’s ugly side a long time ago. All the more reason to consign the Clintons to history, right now.

    I don’t have a better source for the Cheney comment. You could be right, that someone made it up.

    Like you, I think voters have a history of getting things right most of the time. But I think we have entered an era, with Bush and Clinton, when the public is consistently falling for the lies candidates are telling them. And I think it’s a result of a new brazenness in politicians. “Spin” and euphemism are one thing; a carefully calculated disinformation campaign is another. And it is a worrying sign for the health of democracy.

    If Obama loses because of the kind of cheap stunts the Clintons have been pulling, I for one will be very demoralized. If he loses in an honourable campaign, so be it. But the current bullshit about wanting the Florida and Michigan delegates to be seated at the Democratic convention — it suggests that the Clintons aren’t about to change their spots for stripes.


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