The Republicans' Disdain For Democracy
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Over the weekend I watched a clip of Real Time with Bill Maher and was astonished by a comment from Wall Street Journal columnist John Fund (transcript below). The panel was discussing Sarah Palin's apparent ignorance of the Bush Doctrine, and the subject turned to how knowledgeable Palin was in general. Maher brings up the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (Sarbox) as an example. Fund rejects even asking her about it, saying "Do you want to run a trivia contest or do you want to run a campaign?"
This was a remarkable thing to say for several reasons. First and foremost, Fund writes for one of the premier financial media outlets in the world! Isn't legislation that puts noteworthy new regulations on business - itself a real novelty over the last generation - somewhere beyond Jeopardy territory? Furthermore, Sarbox is not just squarely in the wheelhouse of his supposed area of expertise, it is one of the best known pieces of legislation in the past ten years. I know I tend to be in the "political junkie" category but I think a member of a major party ticket should know at least as much about major legislation as I do.
The same is true of the Bush Doctrine. It has been much discussed in the last week; the hastily developed party line is that it actually is some kind of fascinating, multifaceted, unknowable metaphysical construct. (If true it would be the first evidence of foreign policy complexity from the Administration.) But even before all the renewed attention I think expecting a candidate to have at least an interested observer's level of knowledge of it is reasonable. To get a sense of roughly what kind of knowledge "reasonable observer" level implied I decided to give myself an impromptu civics quiz. Since Sarbox has not been in the news recently (just like the Bush Doctrine hadn't) I challenged myself to give an extemporaneous explanation of it from only my existing understanding of it - no news reports, Googling, Wikipedia, etc. Here's what I came up with:
Sarbanes-Oxley is the law passed in the wake of the corporate accounting scandals of the early 2000's. Designed to tighten reporting requirements and insure accountability via CEO signatures on SEC filings, it was intended to prevent the kind of creative accounting that led to the meltdown of Enron, WorldCom and other high profile companies.
There are some quibbles with it - I neglect to mention it does not apply to privately held companies, for instance (but they don't file with the SEC, right?) - but basically I'm happy with it. The point is, I was able to give a decent summary of a big piece of legislation based on having followed the news at the time. I probably could have done the same with the Bush Doctrine, at least mentioning the right to preemptive war based on gathering threats. These are not obscure events, they certainly are not trivia, and it is reasonable to expect anyone running for high office to be conversant in them. Again: Conversant. Not expert, just able to describe their basic outlines.
But John Fund and many others on the right are not engaging in these debates in good faith. Maher even points that out later in the show, telling Fund to his face that he thinks he is lying because he is too smart to believe his own dissembling. The dominant conservative philosophy of our time is a belief in a ruling class of elites. In practice it prefers for citizens to be ignorant of the most basic elements of policy, and nonparticipants in the process of governing. On the heels of the different tactics I highlighted last week to keep voters from actually voting Fund's comments were a revelation. He represents those who have shaped our bellicose foreign policy and forcefully pushed for an unregulated, laissez faire economic state of nature.
They prefer undemocratic forms and seek to discourage the diffusion of knowledge. They want for us to be incurious about disastrous policies or abdications of responsibility, to dismiss our most important policies as trivia. They want for us to not ask questions even when thousands of our fellow citizens are sent to die in a faraway land, or when the financial industry melts down as it has this week. They want for us to not pay attention, or to not care. They don't want high information voters or low information voters. They want no information, and no voting. They resent our attempts to influence our nation's direction. They want to be left alone to shape the country as it best suits them, for us to take our lumps and theirs as well. They want for us to not bother.
Excerpt of Real Time with Bill Maher from September 12, 2008. From roughly 4:11-5:09. Cross talk, repeated words and applause not included.
Let's ask Sarah Palin about Sarbanes-Oxley. What would she say about that? "I shot one the other day. It had horns." Do you think she knows what Sarbanes-Oxley is?
Do you want to run a trivia contest or do you want to run a campaign?
Is that trivia? Wait a second. When you're running to live in the White House is it trivia? That's what I mean - this bothers me. This "I'm a snob because I want to judge the intelligence level of someone who seeks the White House"? That makes me a snob? This is not American Idol. It's not a beauty pageant, even though her answer sounded like a beauty pageant.
I went back and watched the tapes from the primaries. When something like Sarbanes-Oxley or the Bush Doctrine was introduced in those debates, they were given in context and the candidates were told what they were in reference to. Because this is not something that you're supposed to remember off the top of your head.
That is such unbelievable bullshit!
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