Monday, March 23, 2009

They've Had Enough

In his book, The Assault on Reason, Al Gore quotes James Madison, one of his country's founders, and one of its first presidents: "A religious sect may degenerate into a political faction," Madison wrote. It is for that reason that "the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of [the nation] must secure the national councils against any danger from that source." Hence, it was essential for any democracy to establish a separation of powers; and to build in a system of checks and balances to guard against the concentration of power in fewer and fewer hands.

The rise of neo-conservatism has been couched in religious language, says Gore. But, essentially, the goal of the movement has been to wed wealth to power -- something not new to human history. Before the rise of Reagan and the two Bushes, there was the unmitigated frenzy of the Jazz Age, which ended in The Great Depression, and the rise of Franklin Roosevelt. Before that there was the Gilded Age, and the countervailing forces put in place by Roosevelt's cousin, Teddy.

Wealth seeks Power as a consort. And so it has always been. The difference now, writes Gore, is that an "informed citizenry," which the founders saw as the antidote to concentrated power, now relies on television as its main source of information -- not the printed word. The problem with television is that it is a one way medium. Information is passed down from elites to ordinary -- as in "undistinguished" -- citizens. There is no opportunity to carry on a two way conversation. Democracy is founded on the principle of reciprocal communication between those who govern and those whose consent makes that government possible. That is why the notion of a legislature -- whether it be the Mother of all Parliaments in London, the federal and state governments in the United States, or the federal and provincial parliaments in Canada -- is at the center of those democracies. And in those legislatures, decisions are supposed to be made on the basis of collective reason.

One way conversation makes it easy to concentrate power in the hands of those who view themselves as a special, gifted class. The last fifty years has seen a shift away from decision making by the peoples' representatives to what David Halberstam in the 1970's called "The Best and the Brightest," or what later day journalists have called "The Smartest Guys in the Room." Our reliance on these so called experts has led to the general certitude that they know better than the uninitiated what is best for their country.

But this first decade of the new millennium has proved that the best and the brightest can be breathtakingly stupid, whatever their supposed area of expertise. Whether it be the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq or the global financial system, the people who have been in charge have left ruin and chaos in their wake.

That is what the furor over executive bonuses at AIG or the protests in France last week were all about. Venality piled on top of incompetence will no longer get a free pass. The "undistinguished" are taking their cue from the movie Network. Like Howard Beal, they have declared that they are "mad as hell" and they're not going to take it any more. They are insisting that they be heard, and that communication become a two way street again.

Those in power who misread their anger will reap the whirlwind. As Frank Rich warned in Sunday's New York Times, "in the credit mess, action must match words." And, as James Travers wrote in Saturday's Toronto Star, "sooner rather than later" the Prime Minister "must tell the country what this government will do for ailing industries and their workers." If Mr. Obama, Mr Harper or Mr. Sarkosy get it wrong, they will be washed away in a tide of public anger which the world has not seen in a long time.

No comments: