A Disquieting Enervation of Democratic Possibility

            Economist and columnist Paul Krugman has recently argued that the GOP-controlled House Energy and Commerce Committee released a deliberately misleading report concerning implementation of the nation’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act last week in order to accord with its members’ ideological claims concerning the widely trumpeted “failure” of that effort. Other analysts who have studied the survey on which the report was based agree with Krugman’s conclusion. One may interpret this turn by these House officials several ways, but all are disturbing, for they suggest that a share of our nation’s elected leaders have so lost their way as to use artfully created propaganda (for it must be so labeled) to mobilize and mislead their party adherents and American citizens in the face of contrary empirical conditions and facts.

            One might contend that these leaders did not lie so much as seek to present data that would appear to support their ideological views, irrespective of the facts. Alternately, one might simply agree with Krugman that this effort reveals a party now so reckless and so driven by ardent hatred of the President and of government action per se as to trumpet claims in the name of its beliefs that bear no relationship to reality. That is, adopting this viewpoint, one would suggest that Republican leaders are now willing to lie to press their beliefs and to use the media and well-coordinated press releases, sound bites and interviews by stalwart Party members to ensure that their claims receive wide attention as framed. In this view, the GOP is seeking to control public perceptions by distributing profoundly misleading contentions and repeating them ad nauseum. Since that advocacy is deliberately disingenuous, it cannot be said to seek to inform, but only to persuade and to do so without ethical foundation.

            This is all very unsettling if you care about democracy and self-governance, for it appears to cross the line from partisan advocacy into a new territory of propagandizing to persuade citizens of that which is not true and is deliberately calculated to mislead and to create an understanding of reality that bears no relationship to actual conditions. History suggests in countless examples that this is demagoguery and it represents dangerous ground for any polity. When this trend is coupled with ongoing GOP willingness to single out specific groups as “insufficient” in various ways, this trend becomes still more unsettling and concerning.

            James Madison and Alexander Hamilton famously argued in The Federalist that America’s elected officials would be prevented from such behavior both by means of periodic elections and by their desire to be regarded well in history. However, today’s politics may allow neither of these checks to function as the Founders envisioned. Gerrymandered districts have removed much of the power of the electoral check on rabidly ideological or partisan legislators, and slavish ideological devotion, coupled with an increasingly disaffected and often conspiracy-oriented GOP voter base, have resulted in a party ideology that now appears to be breaking down the second check on officials’ behavior, too. What remains is a space in which these political leaders may act with impunity so long as their actions accord with their electoral base’s expectations. Judging from their collective behavior, many officials in the Party now appear to have chosen to take advantage of this opportunity and have dismissed all anchoring propositions other than actions that either conduce to their ideological disposition or to whipping up their already disaffected voter coalition, or both.

            Paradoxically, this situation leaves the United States increasingly in the same sort of parlous and perilous state regarding our governance that many developing nations now confront, although our own course to this pass has been completely voluntary and rooted in electoral mobilization strategies and uniquely American cultural norms and values, rather than, say, arising from a transition from previous dictatorial rule. I think of the difficult scenario now unfolding in Myanmar, for example, which has seen substantial democratic reform and economic growth since its 2010 general election and the freeing of Aung San Suu Kyi after many years of confinement, while it also has witnessed unprecedented and unchecked violence against its Muslim minority, the Rohingya, in a western province in recent months.

            While many of these Rohingya families have lived in Myanmar for generations, they are widely despised by the nation’s more numerous Buddhists, and in December a key city in which many of this group reside saw widespread, systematic murderous attacks on its Muslim population. Indeed, given its scale and apparently careful design, some analysts have labeled the rampage genocide. What I find notable is that a minority was singled out for violence while government officials did little to stop it. Those same leaders meanwhile used calls by the opposition party to curb the violence as a mechanism to portray that group as “Muslim lovers,” so as to appeal to the prejudices of many voters. This sort of willful manipulation of reality to accord with voter fears and bigotry appears to be undermining the possibility of true democratization in Myanmar, even as it results in continuing suffering and deprivation of rights for a share of the nation’s population. Meanwhile, the cynicism implicit in such posturing by the officials practicing it is sickening.

            Sadly, the behavior of a share of our own nation’s officials is increasingly similar. We have many citizens who do not understand how their regime works and who are otherwise unwilling to countenance reality, evidencing instead a fear-filled, willful and paranoia-tinged ignorance that makes them susceptible to carefully crafted rhetorical claims designed to raise their ire and angst. This sort of strategy may work in the short term as it sends some voters to the polls in a bitter frenzy, but perversely, it signals a breakdown in democratic accountability and a disquieting split between citizens and leaders in which the latter now are curiously willing to embrace falsehoods in the name of “representing” the people. The result is not representation that encourages deliberation, so necessary for self-governance, but instead a slow unraveling of any real ties between electoral claims and reality. That such rhetoric, when false and ill intentioned, constitutes demagoguery that often appeals to the worst in citizens to secure or maintain power, only makes this situation more unnerving and potentially explosive. In this sense, the governance situations in Myanmar and the U.S. are too similar for comfort.

            As I write, it is difficult to be optimistic that this trend can soon be reversed in the United States. Multiple recent polls reveal many Americans to be uninformed generally about key issues confronting their nation, uneducated concerning how and why their polity was designed and increasingly disaffected from government following decades of deadening attacks concerning the purported evils of self-governance. All of these trends appear to be converging to create a space in which officials interested only in power, or perhaps with so avid a belief in their ideological frame that they cannot countenance contrary empirical realities, now have gained space and currency to press rhetoric and advocate for views that are not only not true, but are positively pernicious for self-governance. One may hope Krugman and others will serve as canaries in the proverbial coal mine and succeed in turning broad and much needed attention to this difficult turn in our politics.