Monday, August 22, 2011

If I Were a Citizen...

Jonathan Chait is certainly correct that the NYT op-ed "If I Were President" feature yesterday to often conflated "president" with "king" -- I'd probably say dictator, actually. That's pretty anti-democratic.

But what bothered me a lot more, and was even less democratic, about the feature was the premise, from Jesse Kornbluth:
THERE’S a near-total disconnect between our real, large, urgent problems and the who’s-up-who’s-down cage match that is the daily bread of our pundit class. Unending wars, a bone-dry Southwest and flooded Midwest, the absence of a jobs program — these have been, at best, of anecdotal interest to the mouths that roar on television. Instead, media-friendly politicians and pundits have been obsessed with two contrived priorities: the debt ceiling and a presidential election that’s 15 months away.
I can't really say what the cable yelling matches focus on these days, because I rarely watch them. But I'll give a qualified defense on both counts. Whatever the origins of the debt limit showdown, in the event it was certainly quite important. Real changes to the federal budget were being debated, some of them very dramatic. The possibility of a partial government shutdown or some such similar major disruption were very real. It was quite proper for people to pay attention to the situation.

As for the presidential election...look, there's about a 50/50 chance that one of the people running for the GOP nomination is going to be the next President of the United States. It's possible to overhype how much presidents matter, and how much the individual person who is president matters to what the presidency does, but just because something can be overhyped doesn't mean it's not important (I wrote about this over at Salon this weekend). And make no mistake: the nominee is being chosen right now. It's still more likely than not that the nomination will be effectively settled by New Year's Day, and that the caucuses and primaries will merely ratify a decision reached by party actors over previous two years.

Meanwhile, while as I said I don't really know what Maddow and O'Reilly have been talking about lately, I see no shortage at all of serious commentary on serious subjects by various pundits, left, right, and whatever. Granted: there's even less of a shortage of junk. It seems to me that the NYT would do well to amplify the serious stuff and ignore the junk, rather than throwing its hands in the air and declaring a pox on all houses. For one obvious example: no one talks about "a jobs program"? Nonsense; NTY's own Paul Krugman won't shut up about the economy and what he thinks needs to be done. Nor will other interesting economists, and nor will policy wonk bloggers. Not to mention that most Republicans claimed to believe (yeah, I have to put it that way) that the policies that they advocated in the debt limit showdown were in fact exactly what is needed to make the economy surge and jobs return. That Kornbluth apparently disagrees with that is perfectly reasonable, but it doesn't mean that the GOP hasn't been talking about serious matters.

It's a lousy framing anyway. There are really two related but different questions: what are the best policy choices available, and what are the best ways to enact and implement those choices given the constraints of the political system. And note, please, that contrary to what you would get from "If I Were President," there are serious and legitimate differences of opinion about all of this. That, of course, is what democracy is all about. The notion implicit in the format (and echoed in some of the specific pieces) that there are obvious things to do and if only we could get the politicians, interests, and pundits out of the way that those things would get done, is just profoundly undemocratic.


  1. If you have to say "claimed to believe", then I think you also have to make a distinction between "talking about serious matters" and "talking about serious matters seriously."

  2. The premise is even worse than you make out. There are several "cults" at work here, not just the cult of the presidency. There's the cult of new ideas:

    "For all their eloquence, most [talking heads] have nothing to say that we haven’t heard them say before. Bored and frustrated, I found myself hoping for ideas that might challenge or inspire." (Kornbluth)

    So, the only useful ideas are the ones we haven't heard before. How boring and frustrating of Krugman, Jared Bernstein, Brad DeLong and others to keep banging on about stimulus and monetary easing, even though that happens to be what's needed. Can't they think of something new?! And Social Security -- why do all those lame Democrats keep defending Social Security, an idea out of the 1930s? Can't they think of something mod and 21st-century, like funding people's retirements through chain letters on Facebook?

    Then there's the cult of the average Joe, the idea you mention "that there are obvious things to do and if only we could get the politicians, interests, and pundits out of the way that those things would get done." I'd call this the Mr. Smith myth after Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (and a much earlier, now-forgotten novel called President John Smith), although really the better recent expression of it is a movie like Dave, where Kevin Kline played an average citizen who finds himself drafted to impersonate the president, and who proves to be a much better president than the real one because he dispenses with all the political scheming, gets down to work and applies plain common sense to solving the nation's problems.

    This is a very old myth that in some ways can be traced back even before the Founders (with their hatred of "faction") to concepts like Lord Bolingbroke's "Idea of the Patriot King." It comes in both liberal and conservative varieties -- which itself disproves it -- but, either way, boils down to a belief that what matters in a leader is personal virtue and good will. Actual professional skill at the "game" of politics not only doesn't help, but tends to prove that the virtue in question isn't present. I agree that this idea is silly, but having put up with versions of it for nearly 300 years I don't think we're going to get free of it anytime soon (although The West Wing did heroically take a stab at this by depicting political skill and savvy as assets).

  3. David Roberts at Grist has some of the best plain-language analysis I've seen about the disconnect between policy and politics in the U.S.


  4. Jeff,

    Great points, and I absolutely agree.


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