Published on Tuesday, April 2, 2003 by the Boston Globe
Bush Benefits From Decay of Democracy
by Robert Kuttner
HOW DOES George W. Bush get away with it?
His trademark is the use of liberal-sounding rhetoric -- on health care, education, jobs, tax fairness, the environment -- while his policies do the opposite. To watch his recent address on Medicare and Medicaid (which he wants to gut), you would think you were listening to Ted Kennedy.
Presumably, Bush resorts to liberal rhetoric because these are the policies the country wants. Don't the voters care when he does the opposite?
Bush's march to war has also been marked by one misrepresentation after another. Seymour Hersh, writing in The New Yorker, recently exposed as a forgery the administration's claim that Saddam Hussein was seeking to buy enriched uranium for nuclear weapons. The war is not the cakewalk Bush forecast. Ordinary Iraqis are not greeting American troops with flowers, while US casualties mount. The recriminations -- generals versus Rumsfeld, Pentagon versus State Department -- are already leaking into the press.
Yet George W. Bush just floats above it all, popularity ratings surprisingly intact. How does he do it?
Here are five theories -- and to give away the punch line, they all play a part:
Decayed democracy. For three decades, the instruments of our democracy have been withering. I don't mean just declining voter turnout, or the displacement of voting by big money. As Theda Skocpol writes in her brilliant new book ''Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life,'' ordinary people once participated actively in membership organizations that had actual meetings, debated issues, and operated democratically. Today, civil society is made up increasingly of Washington-based, staff-run interest groups.
The decay of democracy is particularly pronounced among less affluent citizens. It's working class voters who have lost means of participation, like unions, and have given up on politics. The elite, meanwhile, is networked as never before. Just stop into any Washington hotel and you'll see gatherings of one professional and business association after another.
Even encouraging civic signs, like millions of young people volunteering, are double edged. The same eager college students tutoring kids to read are shunning politics as just hopeless.
All these chickens are finally coming home to roost: When democracy is pro-forma, the government can do almost anything without fear of retribution.
The media. Bush benefits from the media in several respects. There is a well-orchestrated right-wing amen corner that has no counterpart on the liberal side. It isn't just Fox, the Weekly Standard, the Washington Times, Rush Limbaugh, and The Wall Street Journal, all of whom function as an echo chamber for the administration line. There's simply no counterpart on the liberal side (the so-called liberal papers, like the Globe and The New York Times play it absolutely straight in their news reporting.)
The ferocity and ideological zeal of the right-wing press influences the mainstream press. The right-wing pundits on the talk shows are part of a well-honed strategy. Their ''liberal'' counterparts are polite and moderate by comparison (where on the talk shows is the liberal counterpart to William Kristol?)
Why isn't Hersh's revelation front page news? Why are the rebuttals to Bush's outright fabrications relegated to the back of the paper? If these were Clinton lies, the press would be all over him.
TV is a culprit in yet another respect. It fosters spectacle, not democratic deliberation. It eats up time that might otherwise be spent doing the business of democracy. Viewers watch Bush's soothing speeches and take them at face value. Who has the time or inclination to check the details?
The Iraq war and 9/11. People do rally around the commander in chief in wartime. But not always. Lyndon Johnson was hounded out of office in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War. Roosevelt barely won the election of 1944. Bush would not be so invulnerable were it not for the other factors.
The Bush machine. Yes, political master-strategist Karl Rove, and golden-tongued speechwriter Michael Gerson are damned good (they'd have to be!) But without the power of the right-wing press and the decay of democracy, their genius would take Bush only so far.
Mr. Nice Guy/Tough Guy. It's true. Bush sounds more like just plain folks than Al Gore ever did. The president's otherwise scrupulous handlers may even have calculated that it's folksy to have him keep mispronouncing nook-yuh-ler. Imagine, the man's hand is on a trigger that could blow us all to smithereens, and he can't even say it right.
Even in a decayed democracy, of course, if things get bad enough, the people will throw the rascals out. But repairing democracy itself -- that is harder.
Robert Kuttner's is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company