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Mount Greylock Books LLC has published States of the Union: The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023.   St...

Monday, November 13, 2023

The Platonic Disease

 I have never read Plato's Republic, but I have been aware for a long time of its idea of a state ruled by philosophers.  Uncle Google has kindly supplied me with this quote:

“Unless, said I, either philosophers become kings in our states or those whom we now call our kings and rulers take to the pursuit of philosophy seriously and adequately, and there is a conjunction of these two things, political power and philosophic intelligence, while the motley horde of the natures who at present pursue either apart from the other are compulsory excluded, there can be no cessation of troubles, dear Glaucon, for our states, nor, I fancy, for the human race either." 

The idea that the most educated and thoughtful people should rule has played an enormous role in modern history, partly because it has obvious appeal to the educated class that now dominates modern states. The Enlightenment theory of government seems in fact to have drawn on it, since it presumed that reason could identify and solve society's problems, and monarchs such as Voltaire's sometime friends Catherine the Great and Frederick the Great seem to have seen themselves in this way.  I think that the idea has become particularly influential in some key political strata of the United States over the last half century, and that a variant of it now dominates both journalism and academia.  And I fear that this is a key reason why our political system and our traditions are teetering on a precipice.

The Democratic Party remains the party committed to the idea of government as problem solver.  Where do ideas on how to solve problems come from today?  Some come from institutions like the JFK School of Government at Harvard, where I taught part-time in the late 1970s.  That was an interesting experience.  I was teaching the course The Uses of History with Ernest May and Richard Neustadt, which took a relatively traditional approach to policy making.  Using actual case studies and historical readings, our students looked at some good and bad decisions from the past, and we discussed how history might have helped achieve better outcomes.  I vividly remember Neustadt, who had become a good friend of mine, remarking that the course was what the students had expected from the Kennedy School when they arrived--but that the bulk of the curriculum was very different.  Much of it used macroeconomic techniques to evaluate policy programs.  Logic, that implied, could establish the truth--and one had to be a JFK School graduate to understand its use.  Decades later I re-established contact with one of my favorite undergraduate students in those years--then a left liberal--and found to my amazement that he was now a Republican.  "The Kennedy School turned me into a Republican," he told me.  Class lessons seemed to him so out of touch with economic and political reality that he could not take them seriously.

This is highly relevant, it seems to me, to the Biden Administration's political problems.  Drawing on many years of work in think tanks and universities, it has designed and passed potentially very important legislation to rebuild infrastructure and transform our energy future.  Neither Biden nor any lesser administration figure, however, has made a serious effort to explain how the legislation will work to the American people.  That is exactly what presidents like Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, Nixon, and Reagan did, mostly on radio and television, as my new book shows.  Roosevelt discussed every New Deal measure at some length and put them all within the context of an attempt to build a new and far more equal society.  Truman did the same with proposed new measures for civil rights and national health insurance, and although he could not pass them, he laid the foundation which Lyndon Johnson managed to complete.  Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy also laid out their foreign policy programs in great detail.  Nixon, ironically, played the same role in welfare reform that Truman did in health insurance.  Congress turned down his family assistance plan, but the very similar earned income tax credit--although never explained at any length by Clinton and his successors--drew on the same ideas.  Reagan repeatedly listed the wonderful things that his tax cuts would bring about, and even though he certainly oversold them, the reduction of inflation and the gradual economic recovery convinced the nation that he was on the right track.  Clinton did sell a tax increase that eventually balanced the budget, and Obama made an effective case for expanded health insurance, but that was about as far as they went. George W. Bush promised to transform the Middle East along democratic lines, but could not do so.  Trump used Twitter to dominate the news, but couldn't communicate real solutions to real problems there.

Changes in the media are part of the problem--although the media might give the president more space if he had more to say.  The newspapers no longer print entire presidential addresses, and Biden's two State of the Union addresses, I believe, are the only speeches he has made that all the major networks--who are shadows of their former selves anyway--have carried.  Frequently important speeches of his are relegated to inside pages of the New York Times, an unheard of practice in earlier decades. The other reason for this, however, is that the major media outlets no longer respect the right of elected officials to set the national agenda and propose solutions.  Op-ed columnists in particular--who have emerged as the superstars of major papers--arrogate that job to themselves, whether their ideas have any chance of being implemented or not.  This of course encourages their readers to adopt their ideas, even if they have no chance of being adopted.

The revolt of the late 1960s targeted authority of all kinds--social, religious, sartorial, intellectual, and political.  I believe that hostility to authority has been perhaps the most enduring legacy of that era--and I have discussed many times how much further it has gone in recent decades.  Our government, I am convinced, cannot function if we do not trust our elected officials to make decisions and carry them out.  They may have earned our skepticism, but the depth of that skepticism prevents them from re-establishing real respect and trust.

Yesterday, Donald Trump at a rally referred to his political opponents as "vermin" trying to destroy the United States.  Every story about that speech quotes some historian noting that this echoes the authoritarian leaders of the last century, with the implication that we must heed our historians to preserve our democracy.  The press gives them the status of Plato's philosophers. That, alas, is no substitute for genuine faith in our democracy among our common people--large portions of whom turned to Trump in the last two elections, and may again, because they have lost that faith.  A truly effective new president, I think, will have to have some understanding of what earlier presidents managed to do, and how they did it.


Energyflow said...

Technocratic elites have been discredited as their facts are largely only opinions checked by others in their circle. The vaccines are turning out to have bee riddled with failures. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. We see that in every invasion, coup. The assumption is that we know better and can plan life for others, somewhere else, to live an American suburban lifestyle with democracy and capitalism. Ulticulturalism is a global matter. Live and let live. Within the country as without, a technocratic omniscient, detached, ivory tower elite propose without listening. Grass roots solutions OTOH biubble up slowly, take hold and are adapted. People abandon the rat race, become youtubers, smoke pot, grow a garden, move abroad. Alternatives to modern medical system are found in herbs, yoga. GDP and employment measures are not the meaning of life. Quality of life in the moment is important. Think tanks and Harvard may not catch that in their computer models.

Bruce Wilder said...

The Democratic Party ceased to be the Party of the Working Classes in the 1970s and in the 1980s it became the Party of the Professional and Managerial Classes, the credentialed and narcissistic class that furnished students to the Kennedy School. Clinton’s election in 1992 confirmed the PMC in their approach to politics and Clinton’s policy wonkery thinly disguised a shift toward championing globalism and the financial sector at the expense of a declining legacy industrial sector. The emergence of Big Tech and the Internet extended American economic dominance and prestige internationally, but allowed financialization and a centralization of economic power far beyond the worst fears of the 1920s.

Economic centralization and financialization has drained power and discretion out of the forms of democratic politics. When I worked for a Representative in the 1970s, she sat on the House Banking Committee, where the members played the insurance companies against the Wall Street Banks against the Savings & Loans against Credit Unions, et cetera. That economic diversity and the political conflicts of interest they generated created the conditions for democratic governance. Neoliberal reforms wiped that diversity of interests out and the result is a corrupting centralization and concentration of power that simply hires politicians as spokesmodels.

Much the same process that created “universal banks” merging all kinds of previously distinct types of financial institutions also took over Media, as cable television giants bought movie studios and book publishers and newspapers. The independence and integrity of the system founded under the New Deal, which sought to preserve local ownership of newspapers against the national chains and to keep most radio and television outlets in hands different from newspapers, was lost in an avalanche of financial and operational concentration. Local news reporting and editorial scrutiny of local politics is greatly diminished and with it any possibility of popular oversight of government.

Our politics is top-down: money from billionaires and giant conglomerates of business enterprises goes to Media and political operatives to manipulate emotions of people kept largely ignorant of political reality. People think Saddam Hussein instigated 9/11 and we invade a country that had nothing to do with it. People think Russia “interfered” with the 2016 election and, 2 farcical impeachments later, the economy of Germany is being destroyed and thousands of Ukrainians and Russians are being killed in a war only a MIC could love (or rationalize).

The Republican Party is torn between a party elite that loves Big Business still and a rank-and-file ready to throw a temper tantrum over the corruption and abuse an incompetent state controlled by big business interests. The Democratic Party is a sheep farm run by credentialed foxes for billionaire wolves.