28 May 2008

Bush and the Obsolescence of Democracy

Former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan charges that the Bush administration "took a “permanent campaign approach” to governing at the expense of candor and competence."

To me, particularly when enabled by Rove's discernment of American impulses, Bush represented the triumph of politics over policy. Like a dog chasing a car, Bush knew how to get elected but was largely clueless about what to do with the position once he got it.

As the world gets more complex, the job of voters gets harder.

In some ways, Bush’s administration might represent the culmination of "old" democracy. One of the big reasons that people are more frustrated during elections than they are at the mall has to do with order of choice. Imagine that you were not choosing cars but were, instead, choosing car designers for body shapes and engines. I don't know about you, but I'm not sure that I'd want to drive a car I helped to design. I don't know much about engines. I just choose between final products. By contrast, when it comes to government policies, we're choosing engine designers, not final product. This suggests that we know something about the principles of policy design - an assumption that is not borne out by facts. And when we don't know any better, we ask the designer things like "Have you ever cheated on your wife?" and "What is your religion?" Questions we would not have of any car designer, a person (or team) who might be agnostic or asexual for all we know or care.

Bush knew politics well enough to get elected twice to the highest office in the land. As the unfolding of economic and international events is beginning to suggest, his grasp of policy was about on par with a freshman at Yale. In the old democracy that brought him to power, what matters is the politics. I'm going to write another post that suggests that a confluence of new technologies might allow us to move into a new kind of democracy, one that makes the candidates and politics secondary to the people and policy. Any other alternative – subverting democracy or discarding policy – is simply too dangerous. It is not enough to have Bush out of office by January; we need to change the process that put him in office.


ThomasLB said...

I like this post. I think the car analogy is a good one.

I look forward to Part II.

Jennifer H said...

I couldn't agree with you more strongly. The process is flawed, but not beyond repair. I wish I had more faith in the people's desire to change it.

Lifehiker said...

Welcome back from the world of "temporarily closed".

Frankly, George Bush got elected by many of the same people that Hillary Clinton has been depending on in her battle with Obama. The last think America needs is another race to the bottom!

I've even begun a debate with myself about whether universal suffrage is a good idea. The founders didn't think so, and maybe they were right.

It might not be a good idea to delegate the job of picking a president to people not smart enough to graduate from high school or pay taxes.

I've also thought it might be a good idea to have presidential candidates name not only their vice president but their entire cabinet before the election. One man or woman does not make an executive branch.

And, of course, the "electoral college" is an anachronism that should have become history years ago.

cce said...

Ahhh, the question of suffrage is broached in the comment section...not bad for your first day back. A stick of dynamite, that one. I suppose we all think ourselves superior and, thus, ultimately better suited to pick a President than most of our fellow Americans. I don't think anyone's going to lay down in the road and say, I'm not worthy of my right to vote and therein lies the issue.
Policy versus politics, a dynamic that does seem to be dysfunctional. But how to fix it?
Glad you're back for a little while.

Big Al said...

Amazing, isn't it, how "we the people" choose our President. Since we live in a democratic country, it doesn't matter what level of education you've attained (or not), what your experience is or what you do for employment: you get the opportunity to select who you think is best to be President of our country. Now we know why folks like Dubya get elected, and not just once. 'course all I need to do is think back to when my dad was living and how he voted . . . straight Republican ticket. He didn't care WHO was the candidate. As long as he was Republican he got my Dad's vote.

sigh . . .

Ron Davison said...

Thanks to everyone for coming back.

It does seem so odd - the difference between who we let make physical realities vs. social realities.

Jennifer H,
I think that in lieu of faith, you can just assume that the average person is like us - happy to see an improvement in it.

Thanks for being bold enough to question universal sufferage. Again, I'm not sure it is the universal aspect that troubles me so much (I do share some qualms, but ...) as much as the process by which we learn what the average person wants or needs.

good point - once people have the power to vote, they're not going to willingly give it up. Unless, of course, something really good is on TV that night. Or they have to wash their car. Or ...

Big Al,
I think that our fathers would have had lots to agree about come election day. Sigh indeed.
But you know what is odd? I looked at the Kerry - Bush and Gore - Bush results and did not see any real difference in education levels for Bush supporters and Democrat supporters. It is just not that simple.

HRH said...

Aren't most candidates prepared only for the process that gains them their objective? It is like the couple that goes to pre-marital classes, but never learns to be in a marriage. I don't think Bush is alone in this situation. Politics sucks all around. Once an objective/office is achieved the game changes so significantly that it would be difficult to switch gears...throw in the media which really requests constant campaigning from current office holders and what do you expect? Haven't voters voted for candidates on the expectations of promises to be kept only to find out that Washington politics trumps promises and in most situations common sense? It quite honestly makes my head hurt just thinking about it.

To add my two cents in: One of the brilliance of democracy is that everyone (even really stupid people) have a vote. It sucks that my researched vote counts the same as someone who saw a 30 second commercial on TV, but that is the deal. I am glad they are not giving out IQ tests at the polls. Now as for the electoral college...I just give up.

Ron Davison said...

I agree that it is cool that everyone gets to vote. As much as anything, though, I think the problem is that these folks just choose and don't create. Imagine having to choose between pop ballads and country, with nothing else. People who love music in this world would hate it in that. So it seems to me with politics.

Daryl said...

Welcome back. The car metaphor is excellent.