Sunday, November 16, 2014

Contempt Toward the Electorate is a Proof of Despotism

The fear of the LORD is to hate evil: pride, and arrogance, and the evil way, and the fraudulent mouth, do I hate. – Proverbs, 8:13
Recently, an architect of Obamacare by the name of Jonathan Gruber became an Internet sensation. A video shows him passionately explaining to an audience why a “lack of transparency” is key to the success of legislation. I understand and respect the point of view of Mr. Gruber’s defenders. It is true that legislation need not be clearly stated in order to benefit the public good. As society becomes more complex, the solutions to social problems are liable to become more complex as well. It is highly unlikely that every member of the voting public will have a full grasp of what it is he or she is supporting or opposing. 

But I also understand the point of view of his detractors. It is troubling that the ordinary voter cannot independently evaluate the merits of the Obamacare legislation unless he or she has a law degree or an in-depth knowledge of health economics. 
What is more troubling is that Mr. Gruber’s attitude displays a “we know what is best for the voters even if the voters do not know what is best for them” attitude. The latter reminds me of Heraclitus’ adage: “beasts are driven by blows to pasture.” The voters, then, are dumb brutes, led in the right direction by the judicious application of the shepherd’s staff. 

If he thinks so little of the public, can we be confident that he has the best interests of the public at heart? And more to the point, if there is any element of truth to the notion that voters are incompetent to govern themselves, why is this so? Is it the fault of the American people, or is this the result of designing political leaders who wish to draw more power onto themselves?

The Gruber video played nicely into an article of faith long held by conservatives: namely, that liberals are elitists. By implication, conservatives are more in tune with the sensibilities of voters who have not had the benefit of an Ivy League education, or the cultural advantages that come from being born in a Blue State. 

It bears noting that contempt for voters is not confined to liberals. During the 2012 election, Mr. Romney’s advisor Eric Fehrnstrom said on CNN, “Everything changes … “It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.” He was alluding to voters’ short memories. Words had been said during the primaries that Romney could afford to forget about during the general election. There was also that caught-on-tape moment of Romney candor, when the candidate himself dismissed 47% of the electorate as unworthy of consideration. 

Mr. Romney is an unusual case, however. He is unusually outspoken – a veritable Marie Antoinette of the Republican Party. He was visibly distressed at having to mix with the hoi polloi during his campaign for office, when he would’ve been much happier attending dressage events or playing with his vast collection of luxury antique and modern automobiles. What is more common is for Republicans to don the mantle of folksiness. We saw that with George W. Bush, the Connecticut-raised plutocrat who cultivated a Texan twang and mangled the English language, and Ronald Reagan, who could neutralize a hard fact simply by smiling at it.  

Typically, conservatives express contempt for voters by making ostensibly factual statements which insult the voters’ intelligence. For example, they’ve been saying that the United States is on the verge of being invaded by members of the Islamic State crossing the Mexican border. This is an absurd statement, both because there is a complete absence of any evidence in support of the claim, and because IS members who wished to visit the United States wouldn’t need to climb over the fence between Mexico and the U.S. but could simply use their legal passports and fly in on commercial flights (source). 

Do Voters Really Believe That?

Now, I am going to suggest that American voters ought to get more respect. But I can’t honestly press that case without acknowledging that voters are willing to accept a lot of far-fetched ideas. Whether it is an ISIS invasion through Mexico or the idea of government-appointed Death Panels or anything coming from the mouth of Michele Bachmann, there seems to be no limit to what some people are willing to believe. 

Let’s start with the idea of Death Panels. Lots of conservatives seemed to believe the claim that the Obamacare legislation contained a provision mandating that health care providers try to press senior citizens to opt for euthanasia. If a voter lacks formal education, is told this by elected political leaders, and is surrounded by people who are saying this is true, then it is really no surprise that the voter ends up believing it. But really, it doesn’t matter how smart you are, if you are surrounded by false information you are apt to believe some of it. 

And that whole idea of Death Panels was true, in a certain light. Obamacare really is a frightening thing. The idea of Death Panels is valid insofar as it conveys the emotional truth, “There are provisions lurking beneath the surface that are liable to harm us.” Honestly, I wished more people had been paying attention to the omens. Americans have been placed under a legal obligation to give their hard-earned money over to private insurance companies, and the economic incentives are such that insurance companies will try to trim benefits, increase rates, and kick people off the plan (which in fact happened during the initial roll-out, despite the fact that Obamacare was supposedly guaranteed to all who qualified). Being turned down for benefits or knocked off a medical plan can, and does, kill people. 

In other words, there are different kinds of intelligence. A formally-educated person can grasp technical language and abstract ideas, but still be fooled by articulate lies. A person may lack formal education but nonetheless know the different between an honest deal and a con.

Mind you, it’s not just Republicans who believe crazy ideas. Democrats believe that handing health insurance over to private insurers is “health care reform.” That’s kind of like believing, “we ought to leave bank regulation to people who used to work for Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan” – oh wait, people actually do believe that. OR rather, we could assume that the people who voted for Obama in 2012 believe that this is a wise course, because that is exactly what Obama did during his first term (source). And Republican members of Congress have gone along with this. 

The bottom line: if you’ve voted Republican or Democrat in recent years, you must believe that foxes are ideal candidates for guarding hen-houses. 

The Unfortunate Truth

Political scientists at Princeton recently completed an in-depth study of the American political process. They concluded that when a majority of voters favor a position that is at odds with the position favored by economic elites and/or with organized interests, even when they favor it by a large majority, they usually lose (source). This speaks to the closing point of this essay: namely, that corruption has become a defining feature of the political process in this country. In taking stock of the facts, one is inevitably drawn to the conclusion that this corruption must exist in both political parties.

Styles of voting

Political leaders are contemptuous of the average intelligence of the American public, but the wisdom of the public is nonetheless demonstrated by the fact that it clearly recognizes the existence of widespread corruption. A majority of Americans, for example, favor campaign finance reform (source). A majority of Americans believe that the economy would be revitalized by means of public investment in infrastructure (source). A majority believe that defense spending is too high (source). A majority understand that Obamacare would have been of far greater benefit to the American people if private insurers had been forced to compete against public providers of health care (source). 

As expressed by one political analyst, ordinary voters understand that “the fix is in” and that they are “powerless in an economy run for the benefit of the rich and well-connected (source).” Our political leaders know full well that the country is under the control of oligarchs. When our leaders display contempt for the intelligence of the American voter, they are letting slip the arrogance of power, and revealing the true face of despotism. Aristotle said that “governments which have a regard to the common interest are constituted in accordance with strict principles of justice, and are therefore true forms; but those which regard only the interest of the rulers are all defective and perverted forms, for they are despotic.”

I'd be far more willing to trust in legislation that I cannot fully comprehend if I were confident that our leaders were not corrupt. As it stands, it is best that legislation be as simple and transparent as possible.

No comments:

Post a Comment