Thursday, February 17, 2005

Liberals and Democracy-Promotion

Matthew Yglesias is right on, as usual:
The second, and larger part, of the argument goes like this. Liberal rhetoric about democracy-promotion and idealism is more likely to be effective at promoting democracy but liberals are sensitive to the reality of past American wrongdoing and hypocrisy. This is stuff the people we're trying to help are aware of, and they don't take the US government seriously unless we acknowledge all that and can credibly maintain to be doing things differently in the future.

The trouble is that rather than bolstering each other, as Beinart thinks, these points are in tension. The sort of liberal rhetoric that is effective as part of a democracy-promotion strategy is harmful as an electoral strategy. That's exactly the kind of stuff that pisses most Americans outside of a smallish cosmopolitan sector off. A big part of what's appealing about Bush's idealistic rhetoric is that it plays into America's very flattering self-conception. The more honest take on this beloved of liberal intellectuals is likely to work better, since it's more credible, but at best it will confuse the electorate ('nuance' and all that) and more likely it will enrage them. People don't want to hear that America, though often good, has also been bad and needs to reform its ways to meet the challenges of the 21st century. There's a genuine difficulty here, and it needs to be acknowledged and addressed. The 'pundit's fallacy' of assuming that whatever you happen to think the best policy would be is also the best political approach is a serious danger.
To paraphrase: Actually promoting democracy abroad (as opposed to just talking about it or going to war) is a complex task which requires America to acknowledge past and present foreign policy realities. But selling this to Joe American is difficult because a) he is attracted to simplistic solutions, and b) he will usually reject any notions that do not conform to his rosy picture of America.

Of course, reading between the lines, what we're really saying here is that voters are simplistic idiots. Which is not very comforting to idealistic "liberals" like myself.

I'm becoming more and more convinced that America's Democrats are engaged in a battle they can't win. Sure they may win some elections every now and then if the Republicans become too corrupt or screw up things too badly. But Americans have this crazy ability to ignore unpleasant facts. As long as Republicans are shrewd and speak of their policies (failures or not) in terms that appeal to voters' desires for simplicity and self-promotion (i.e. "patriotism") they will prevail in the long run.

So what's the solution? I think Democrats need to completely break with the system. Stop taking money from interest groups altogether. Introduce full transparency (publish all accounting records on the internet, for instance). Start engaging in public debates - if Republicans won't participate then mock them. Stop trying to say what the public wants to hear. Answer questions truthfully and completely on TV. Kick out (or stop supporting) elected Democrats who are self-interested crooks. Stop partisan redistricting in all blue states (like Arnold suggested). And so on and so forth.

American voters may stop being idiots if they're given the opportunity to see politicians with integrity and character.

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