Plumbing the Depths

How the Gears Turn

March 9, 2008

Common delusions notwithstanding, the United States, I submit, is not a democracy—by which is meant a system in which the will of the people prevails. Rather it is a curious mechanism artfully designed to circumvent the will of the people while appearing to be democratic. Several mechanisms accomplish this.

First, we have two identical parties which, when elected, do very much the same things. Thus the election determines not policy but only the division of spoils. Nothing really changes. The Democrats will never seriously reduce military spending, nor the Republicans, entitlements.

Second, the two parties determine on which questions we are allowed to vote. They simply refuse to engage the questions that matter most to many people. If you are against affirmative action, for whom do you vote? If you regard the schools as abominations? If you want to end the president’s hobbyist wars?

Third, there is the effect of large jurisdictions. Suppose that you lived in a very small (and independent) school district and didn’t like the curriculum. You could buttonhole the head of the school board, whom you would probably know, and say, “Look, Jack, I really think….” He would listen.

But suppose that you live in a suburban jurisdiction of 300,000. You as an individual mean nothing. To affect policy, you would have to form an organization, canvass for votes, solicit contributions, and place ads in newspapers. This is a fulltime job, prohibitively burdensome.

The larger the jurisdiction, the harder it is to exert influence. Much policy today is set at the state level. Now you need a statewide campaign to change the curriculum. Practically speaking, it isn’t practical.

Fourth are impenetrable bureaucracies. A lot of policy is set by making regulations at some department or other, often federal. How do you call the Department of Education to protest a rule which is in fact a policy? The Department has thousands of telephones, few of them listed, all of which will brush you off. There is nothing the public can do to influence these goiterous, armored, unaccountable centers of power.

Yes, you can write your senator, and get a letter written by computer, “I thank you for your valuable insights, and assure you that I am doing all….”

Fifth is the invisible bureaucracy (which is also impenetrable). A few federal departments get at least a bit of attention from the press, chiefly State and Defense (sic). Most of the government gets no attention at all—HUD, for example. Nobody knows who the Secretary of HUD is, or what the department is doing. Similarly, the textbook publishers have some committee whose name I don’t remember (See? It works) that decides what words can be used in texts, how women and Indians must be portrayed, what can be said about them, and so on. Such a group amounts to an unelected ministry of propaganda and, almost certainly, you have never heard of it.

Sixth, there is the illusion of journalism. The newspapers and networks encourage us to think of them as a vast web of hard-hitting, no-holds-barred, chips-where-they-may inquisitors of government: You can run, but you can’t hide. In fact federal malefactors don’t have to run or hide. The press isn’t really looking.

Most of press coverage is only apparent. Television isn’t journalism, but a service that translates into video stories found in the Washington Post and New York Times (really). Few newspapers have bureaus in Washington; the rest follow the lead of a small number of major outlets. These don’t really cover things either.

When I was reporting on the military, there were (if memory serves) many hundreds of reporters accredited to the Pentagon, or at least writing about the armed services. It sounds impressive: All those gimlet eyes.

What invariably happened though was that some story would break—a toilet seat alleged to cost too much, or the failure of this or that. All the reporters would chase the toilet seat, fearful that their competitors might get some detail they didn’t. Thus you had one story covered six hundred times. In any event the stories were often dishonest and almost always ignorant because reporters, apparently bound by some natural law, are obligate technical illiterates. This includes the reporters for the Post and the Times.

Seventh, and a bit more subtle, is the lack of centers of demographic power in competition with the official government. The Catholic Church, for example, once influentially represented a large part of the population. It has been brought to heel. We are left with government by lobby—the weapons industry, big pharma, AIPAC, the teachers unions—whose representatives pay Congress to do things against the public interest.

Eighth, we are ruled not by a government but by a class. Here the media are crucial. Unless you spend time outside of America, you may not realize to what extent the press is controlled. The press is largely free, yes, but it is also largely owned by a small number of corporations which, in turn, are run by people from the same pool from which are drawn high-level pols and their advisers. They are rich people who know each other and have the same interests. It is very nearly correct to say that these people are the government of the United States, and that the federal apparatus merely a useful theatrical manifestation.

Finally, though it may not be deliberate, the schools produce a pitiably ignorant population that can’t vote wisely. Just as trial lawyers don’t want intelligent jurors, as they are harder to manipulate, so political parties don’t want educated voters. The existence of a puzzled mass gawping at Oprah reduces elections to popularity contests modulated by the state of the economy. One party may win, yes, or the other. But a TV-besotted electorate doesn’t meddle in matters important to its rulers. It has never heard of them.

To disguise all of this, elections provide the excitement and intellectual content of a football game, without the importance. They allow a sense of Participation. In bars across the land, in high-school gymns become forums, people become heated about what they imagine to be decisions of great import: This candidate or that? It keeps them from feeling left out while denying them power.

It is fraud. In a sense, the candidates do not even exist. A presidential candidate consists of two speechwriters, a makeup man, a gestures coach, ad agency, two pollsters and an interpreter of focus groups. Depending on his numbers, the handlers may suggest a more fixed stare to crank up his decisiveness quotient for male or Republican voters, or dial in a bit of compassion for a Democratic or female audience. The newspapers will report this calculated transformation. Yet it works. You can fool enough of the people enough of the time.

When people sense this and decline to vote, we cluck like disturbed hens and speak of apathy. Nope. Just common sense.

This first appeared in shorter form in The American Conservative