As I suspect most readers of these pages will be aware, the son of Boston University professor of history and international relations Andrew Bacevich was killed while serving in Iraq. I'll not linger on the loss, which, like all such losses, is unutterably tragic, tinged in this case by the irony of the fallen hero's father's reputation as a critic of Bush's Mesopotamian misadventure. Our prayers must be with the Bacevich family as they mourn their loss.
The loss of a young officer, however, while an occasion for private grieving, is veritably pregnant with portents for the future of this nation, well beyond the polarization of our political discourse that would have the vilest of war enthusiasts penning letters to Prof. Bacevich to lay the blame for the loss of his son at the elder man's writings. For here it is not merely the nature of the loss - though even this alters its aspect when contemplated in light of the political setting - that arrests the mind, but the also nature of the political establishment itself. Though the sort of people who were rankled by the celebrated First Things End of Democracy symposium will likely bridle at the suggestion, it is all but incontrovertible that the response of the establishment to public opinion on the war (and on other matters, as we will see) indicates that the integrity of our ostensible republic of self-governing citizens has been compromised, perhaps mortally.
Professor Bacevich writes:
What exactly is a father's duty when his son is sent into harm's way?
Among the many ways to answer that question, mine was this one: As my son was doing his utmost to be a good soldier, I strove to be a good citizen.
Prof. Bacevich, that is, strove to fulfill the duties incumbent upon a citizen of a republic, especially a citizen possessed of expertise and knowledge in a field pertinent to an issue of great public import, by delineating the bases of the Bush policy, and expounding upon the reasons that policy is, as he writes, "...dead wrong and doomed to fail." In so doing, he believed that his contribution would combine with those of many others engaged civically to precipitate something of a change.
This, I can now see, was an illusion.
The people have spoken, and nothing of substance has changed. The November 2006 midterm elections signified an unambiguous repudiation of the policies that landed us in our present predicament. But half a year later, the war continues, with no end in sight. Indeed, by sending more troops to Iraq (and by extending the tours of those, like my son, who were already there), Bush has signaled his complete disregard for what was once quaintly referred to as "the will of the people."
To the obduracy of the President and the dominant faction of his party we might add the craven cynicism of the Democrats, who, terrified of appearing to be soft on 'national security' (although the argument that Iraq has much to do with our national security has never been other than a diaphanous lie over an illusion), and earnestly desirous of hanging the albatross of the war about the neck of the GOP for the 2008 elections, have scant interest in doing much more than posturing.
To whom do Kennedy, Kerry and Lynch listen? We know the answer: to the same people who have the ear of George W. Bush and Karl Rove -- namely, wealthy individuals and institutions.
Money buys access and influence. Money greases the process that will yield us a new president in 2008. When it comes to Iraq, money ensures that the concerns of big business, big oil, bellicose evangelicals and Middle East allies gain a hearing.
Now, some might wish to dismiss such allegations as nothing more than the paroxysms of grief and rage of a grieving father; others may wish to dismiss them as quasi-Marxist claptrap. To the former, I can say only that such crude personalizations of the political ought to be beneath the discourse of civilized peoples; to imagine that political disagreement either can or should be reduced to a matter of personal psychology is to recapitulate the tactics of earlier generations of , well, revolutionaries - and the reprise ought to be rejected as such. As regards the latter, it should suffice to note that conservatives in America would do well to reacquaint themselves - or, as the case may be, acquaint themselves for the first time - with the writings of James Burnham, who grasped that any governing establishment reposes upon an architecture of economic arrangements, which both secure and reinforce - and enforce - that establishment. It is no refutation of this observation to note the institutional drift of think tanks and organizations once founded for other purposes, but which now agitate for the policies of the duopoly: the surest path to relevance is often association with power and privilege, not their contestation.
Money maintains the Republican/Democratic duopoly of trivialized politics. It confines the debate over U.S. policy to well-hewn channels. It preserves intact the cliches of 1933-45 about isolationism, appeasement and the nation's call to "global leadership." It inhibits any serious accounting of exactly how much our misadventure in Iraq is costing. It ignores completely the question of who actually pays. It negates democracy, rendering free speech little more than a means of recording dissent.
This is not some great conspiracy. It's the way our system works.
No, it is not a conspiracy. But what it is, is the senescence of republican government, the withering away of vital self-government, the attenuation of citizenship, and the alienation of the establishment and elites from the people they feign to represent. What the Founding Fathers feared, that mere factionalism would degrade our system of government, reducing it to the creature of an unrepresentative minority, has become our reality.
This is not merely a question of foreign policy; the disease is endemic throughout our republic. It manifests in the symptom of elite defiance of the will of the people on the immigration and national questions. It also manifests itself on matters perhaps dearer still to the hearts of many American conservatives, at least as we have come to understand that designation. Georgetown professor of government, and founder of the Tocqueville Forum on the Roots of American Democracy, Patrick Deneen, draws our attention to a fascinating little piece in the New York Times discussing one Bryan Caplan's contempt for the will of the people. The author of that piece, Gary Bass, explains:
Now Bryan Caplan, an economist at George Mason University, has attracted notice for raising a pointed question: Do voters have any idea what they are doing? In his provocative new book, “The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies,” Caplan argues that “voters are worse than ignorant; they are, in a word, irrational — and vote accordingly.” Caplan’s complaint is not that special-interest groups might subvert the will of the people, or that government might ignore the will of the people. He objects to the will of the people itself.
Caplan argues that the aggregative function of democracy can only succeed in minimizing the effects of voter ignorance of what are regarded as technocratic problems if the distributions of errors, and votes cast on the basis of the errors, are random. Alas, as Caplan argues, begging a question or two somewhere along the line,
...voters make systematic mistakes about economic policy — and probably other policy issues too. (Emphasis mine.)
I do not wish to gloss over the momentous questions, which so occupied earlier generations of Americans, inclusive of the Founders, concerning the relationship of public opinion to the formulation of policy. However one might care to describe the process of representation and refinement of opinions and interests that ought to characterize a representative government, it remains that the division between elite and popular opinions on a spectrum of issues has seldom, if ever, been so marked, and the alienation of the elites so complete. A representative system of government cannot abide when the governing classes openly avow that the people, being "ignorant", must defer to the judgment of their betters and submit to the tutelage of those who think themselves wise.
Caplan’s own evidence for the systematic folly of voters comes from a 1996 survey comparing the views of Ph.D. economists and the general public. To the exasperation of the libertarian-minded Caplan, most Americans do not think like economists. They are biased against free markets and against trade with foreigners. (snip)
If the public doesn’t know how to think, is there a solution? Caplan has some radical medicine in mind. To encourage greater economic literacy, he suggests tests of voter competence, or “giving extra votes to individuals or groups with greater economic literacy.” (snip) Most provocatively, perhaps, in an online essay Caplan has suggested a curious twist on the tradition of judicial review: If the Supreme Court can strike down laws as unconstitutional, why shouldn’t the Council of Economic Advisers be able to strike down laws as “uneconomical”?
And there one has it: in a managerial democracy, some votes are more equal than others, perhaps even quantitatively. One scarcely knows how to evaluate Caplan's fantasies. Perhaps Caplan is the sort of naif who, having finally decoded the esoteric texts of his teachers, rushes to disclose their meaning to the world, rendering the esoteric the commonplace. Or perhaps he is merely supercilious, believing himself, and those like him, possessed of a right of rule, and of authority and deference due on account of knowledge of the Mysteries. In the end, however, neither Caplan's analysis and anti-republican proposals, nor the representation of public opinion, are the issues. What is at issue is the alienation of the establishment from the people, from the nation, and the growing perception among them that they possess an inherent right of deference. Moreover, it is a presupposition of self-government that the electorate have the power to make "mistakes", even if elites err in considering these acts mistaken. A polity can no more be free without this power than a man can possess free will in this life absent the power to will evil. Acceptance of Caplan's doctrine would, with one stroke, abolish the Republic.
Professor Deneen, in summation of his critique of Caplan and Bass, writes words that, while directed at the economistic hauteur of Caplan and Bass, are equally apropos of the controverted issues of the war and immigration:
The thought never crosses the mind of any of these academic elites that the people may be right: that what the populace seeks to endorse is reasonable stability in their lives and their communities, the creation and sustaining of a moral ecology, the chance to pass one's cultural inheritance from one generation to the next, the knowledge that one's children will not be asked to die for the country in wars of imperialism or to secure a steady flow of petroleum, and that one can live and die in communities where one's life will be remembered and honored. Democracy, thus stated, is neither about efficiency nor legitimacy, its aim is not economic growth or individual autonomy, but about living well within moral and humane limits. That such a thought doesn't remotely occur to our academic leaders is all the more reason why it would be better to be governed by the first 100 names in the Cedar Rapids phone book than by members of the faculty at Princeton or George Mason Universities.
What is most portentious in all of these symptoms is that Caplan's multiple-voting scheme is hardly necessary. The very structures of the political establishment, inclusive of the parties as coalitions of disparate interest groups, insure a high degree of immunity for the American elite. Perhaps, when by their actions, the hierarchies of the parties demonstrate that they believe "we have no other place to go", we should instruct them that we do, in fact, have other places to go, and that, sooner or later, with or without their consent, we intend to take them to those places. A crisis of legitimacy is aborning; the task of the hour is not to explain it away, but to learn how to wield it.