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Sunday, Oct. 5, 2008

COUNTERPOINT

So you think U.S. democracy's dying? Well, you're probably right


The national conventions of the U.S. Democratic and Republican parties are now but fast-fading memories. The only thing that I really wanted to know once they were over was: Who has the balloon concession for these events, because there's obviously a lot of easy money to be made from hot air.

More to the point, would any observer of those conventions living in Kabul or Beijing or Nairobi or St. Petersburg say, "Wow, that's democracy at work. That's the kind of political system we want!?" Yet Americans seem to believe, down to the last moose-skinner, that the world is dying to adopt their idiosyncratic and flawed form of government.

To Americans and non-Americans alike, I recommend "Just How Stupid Are We?" (Don't answer that.) This is a fascinating study of the American political mind by historian Rick Shenkman, founder of Virginia-based George Mason University's popular Web site, History News Network.

In this 2008 volume from Basic Books, Shenkman discusses in depth the dumbing down of American politics, exposing the myths that Americans rely on to gain and wield power at home and abroad. According to him, democracy itself is now crucially threatened in the United States.

"(One) reason millions feel that the country is becoming less democratic is that in a very real way it is," he writes. "Special interests today often have an iron grip on the federal government. Lobbying the government has become a small industry. Between 2000 and 2005 the number of registered lobbyists in Washington doubled to nearly 35,000."

Nearly 35,000 lobbyists? It's amazing there's room left in the halls of Congress for its elected members.

In Shenkman's book, though, the myth of "the people" (as in "rule of the people, by the people, for the people") is exposed for what it is: a slogan with which to manipulate power against the very interests of the people. Shenkman outlines in detail how elections have become games of media one-upsmanship. As for the candidates, their prospects rise on clever quips and fall on glaring gaffes. I was fully expecting Paris Hilton to run in 2008 — and perhaps snatch a good share of the vote — by airing the slogan: "Read My Hips. No New Waxes."

"Studies show," Shenkman tells us, "that the speeches of presidents today are pitched at the level of seventh-graders."

From what I have heard of George W. Bush's speeches in the past seven-odd years, if Shenkman is right, the level of seventh-grade intelligence has gone down considerably since I was a kid. And take the candidates on both sides. It doesn't matter if you can hold your own with the likes of Vladimir Putin or, God forbid, Hugo Chavez, so long as U.S. TV comedian Jon Stewart portrays you as being funny (in the ha-ha sense).

If a confrontation such as the one between John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis were to occur today, we'd all be blown to smithereens; but we'd have a good laugh about it for a few seconds beforehand on the "Late Show" with David Letterman.

Well, you may ask, what about the presidential and vice-presidential debates? Don't they delve into the issues?

Shenkman covers the role that radio and television have played since the 1920s. The most famous TV debates would have to be those watched by more than 60 million viewers between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960 — the first-ever between presidential contenders. Shenkman writes:

"What the presidential debates of 1960 — there were four in all — proved was that it is vital to work every angle you can to gain an advantage. It wasn't by accident that Nixon's pores oozed beads of sweat during one debate. Knowing that Nixon was prone to sweating, J. Leonard Reinsch, Kennedy's media consigliere, later confessed that he contrived to raise the studio temperature in the hours before the event . . .

"Nor was it accidental that Nixon appeared unsteady on his feet at the first debate. Recently, he had injured his knee getting into a car. . . . The Kennedy people, knowing this, wanted the candidates to stand during much of the course of the hourlong debate."

It's nice to know, in our present era of infamous Republican dirty tricks, that two can play as dirty as one. There's certainly no place for the Marquis of Queensberry in the boxing ring of American politics. All you need to defeat your opponent is a winning smile and a string of clever slogans tripping off your tongue. When Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, many balked that an actor had reached the pinnacle of political power. Reagan himself was puzzled by that reaction. "(I wonder) how anybody could succeed as a modern president," he said, "if he hadn't been an actor."

This is American politics naked and beautiful, a cross between "High Noon" (the silent hero who shoots because he doesn't know what questions to ask) and Disney's "Fantasia" (the jolly hero who whistles, hums and sweeps Evil away with a magic broom).

Shenkman's treatment of American conservatism is revealing. In which other democratic country can a host of billionaires and their spokespeople in high office denounce liberals as "elitist" and get away with it?

In fact, is there another democracy where the word "liberal" is a slur?

The entire conservative-liberal locus in the U.S. is shifted far to the right in comparison with European democracies. Liberals believe instinctively in social pluralism, and that — by right — all citizens partake of the bounty of chance and privilege. American conservatives generally strive to deny rights of governance to those who don't share their faith-inspired world view. The belief in their intrinsic right to govern over all prevents them from seeing the hypocrisy in their denial of power, by virtually any means, to those who don't share their persuasions.

The myths of opportunity, of fairness and equality, do not stand up to American realities. But nonetheless, according to Shenkman, these myths refuse to go away.

"Given all that we know," he asks, "should we be hopeful . . . ? Reason is under assault everywhere one turns. Each election campaign seems worse than the last. Myths are ubiquitous. Nearly half of the eligible voters don't vote and many of those who do don't seem to know what they're voting for. . . . Stupidity is common and brain, common sense, and courage are rare."

The coda of "Just How Stupid Are We?" is titled "Hope." Whether this coda is justified or not — as well as the answer to the question in the title — will be known in early November. Stay tuned. It is approaching High Noon in the United States of America.



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