Friday, May 18, 2007

An Even Less Convenient Truth
Check out this book excerpt from Al Gore's The Assault on Reason.

This is an insightful but profoundly depressing read. Gore grasps a point that should be obvious--modern American culture is defined by the passive experience of watching television, and that passivity has drained the vitality of the public sphere. He doesn't say, but could, that the fracturing of the culture was coincident with and reinforcing of the fracturing of the "vital center" postwar consensus. As we've stepped back into our little pursuits and niches, we've left the playing field of politics to those who have the most resources and interest in grabbing a piece, from interest groups at all points of the political compass to millionaire campaign bundlers.

Gore paints a dire picture of American democracy "in danger of being hollowed out." That at least he's got right. Unless and until there's a Great Depression-level economic crash (and I'm starting to think we know too much about the economy for that to be very likely) or a series of terror attacks that make everyone feel personally endangered, we are very unlikely to succumb to an overtly authoritarian form of governance. There will still be campaigns and elections and different levels and branches of government, all contested by different political parties. It just won't matter. The barriers to enactment of the popular will--from gerrymandering to unlimited corporate money to institutionalized trivialization of the news--will become ever stronger, while the popular will itself is thinned to nothing.

But he's not dire enough, or has a mistaken sense of the timeline. One can plausibly argue that this all has happened already, it's gone, and what remains is entertainment and ritual. It's not primarily corporate pervidy or trash TV or the rise of the political consultants that killed it; "we the people" just lost interest, because we don't collectively do great things anymore. We can't even really win wars, be they military or market-based. We're still coasting on what we were 60 years ago, the fluky comparative advantage we ended World War II with and then somewhat reinforced when the Cold War concluded. That ride will end, and then we'll start to become as fractured economically as we are in the other ways. In fact, that's already well underway too ("The Shrinking Middle Class").

Thus, the fights of the late Bush years, for those who care about the Constitution and think the system as enacted in 1789 and refined through the Civil Rights era was worthwhile and effective, are really just about trying to preserve the tools and framework of American democratic governance. For today, people are doing this to push back against individuals or factions that seek to abuse power--but for the longer term, the hope is that if the public ever feels like taking a real interest at some future point, they'll still have the capacity.

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