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Pro-democracy, Anti-American: Why the two cohere

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted March 14, 2011

Life has many tragedies, and politics is full of them. The Law of Unintended Consequences says it's best to assume that any political policy has a tragic flaw. For example, monetary easing to push down borrowing costs eventually raises inflation expectations. Interest rates rise in consequence, and borrowing costs go up. The benefit of lower interest rates is temporary, with a length that's unpredictable.

A more telling example is Social Security. The tragic flaw in such a policy was its set of static assumptions. Back when Social Security was enacted, the life expectancy was much lower. It was reasonable to assume that the payments would provide a living to those in the sunset of their lives, for as little as five years for the norm and less than a decade for all but a lucky few. Thus, it was assumed, the taxpayer-to-recipient ratio would always remain high. Thanks to advances in health and medicine, life expectancy has considerably lengthened. It's this actuarial crisis that's pushing Social Security to insolvency.

Also, the political marketplace was assumed to be static. Strangely, it was not assumed that there would be followers in President Roosevelt's wake who would be eager to promise more benefits. The likes of Lyndon Johnson, and the followers in his own wake, were genuine black swans. Adding benefits, including for non-retirees, added to the ultimate insolvency of the system. Consequently, there's a lot of social insecurity in the United States.

Even political life has a tragic element. Have you ever heard of the Good-Government reformers of a century ago? They claimed that the professionalization of government – handing over responsibility to bureaucrats with fixed salaries and job security – would remove governing from the vagaries of politics. It would lead to mature and disinterested implementation of policy.

Given how Washington D.C. really operates, the above dream has gone beyond ironic to laughable. If you've ever had the chance to oversee a bunch of socially insecure teenagers, you'll get a good idea of how the bureaucracy really ticks over. Who's up? Who's down? Who has the President's ear? Who's in the bad books? Who to court? Who to schmooze? Who to avoid? Who to shun? What's my effectiveness like?

Again, tragedy. Socializing and consequent social insecurity have filled the incentive vacuum.

There are tragedies in foreign policy, too. The one that irks is an indirect consequence of the United States promoting democracy throughout the world. The hope is for the inhabitants of those democracies to remain, or become, friendly to America in return for the support and/or help they got. Tragically, those hopes are often dashed.

"You Shoulda Known"

The democratic credo is a lot like the journalists' credo of H.L. Mencken: comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Stand up for the underdog and bash the big bully. Hold out the government as a haven of safety in a heartless and sometimes cruel world; an institution where the little guy can seek shelter and redress.

As any campaigner can testify to, the basic credo works. It taps into our risk aversion. We've all had setbacks and disappointments, and it's easy for us to imagine that we can be knocked flat by a disaster or mishap. Consequently, we identify with the little guys and even empathize with them. It's easy to see ourselves in their shoes. In addition, thanks to the merit system and the need to work our way up, we've been little guys ourselves at some stage in our lives. Students at an elite university typically have great prospects, but they tend to be poor and are often indebted. Thus, they find it easy to identify with the poor because they themselves are. Ex-students, even wealthy ones, remember their own days when a dollar had to be squeezed as hard as possible. A little taste of hard times reinforces the democratic credo in the social-policy department. The same identification process kicks in for other politically popular causes. A cynic like H.L. Mencken would say that the most efficacious way to erect social policy is to tap into hidden sorrows and grudges. More neutrally, the best way to get such policies enacted is to make sure the middle majority identifies easily with the beneficiaries.

The minority of people who don't identify with the little guy can be set up as the "oppressors." They're at fault; they're to blame! They, after all, are the comfortable. Who better to blame the afflictions of the afflicted on?

An experienced politician knows that the above schema is too simple. A high-school student who takes it as gospel, and who tries for class president on a campaign geared to whip up resentment against the football team, won't get far. He or she is more likely to end up a laughingstock, with the footballers and cheerleaders chortily encouraging it. Just like someone from the rougher side of town ambitiously trying to bust into the private-school circuit, a student politician using the anti-football strategy is likely to end up hugely embarrassed.

The charmed circle of born winners ain't that easy to humble, especially since they're above average in the social-skills department. Those skills include making it easy for ordinary people to identify with their success, and deftly nipping and tucking when necessary. In America, the comfortable aren't afflictable unless they can be credibly portrayed as hypocrites or criminals. The portrayal has to speak to common sense.

From the perspective of cold calculation, the best "big bullies" to bash are the ones who don't fight back. Not only is doing so more risk-averse for the politician, but also it tickles ordinary people's vanity. They can see themselves as brave for standing up to the Goliath. A skilled campaigner can explain away the Goliath's lack of retaliation as being the consequence of guilty conscience. And boy, have they got a lot to be guilty about!

From the perspective of icy cynicism, there's an even better Goliath to bash: the one who genuinely wants to help the less fortunate and is also idolized. Great hopes dashed by practical, ordinary results create a fertile disappointment that a skilled campaigner can transform into rancour.

Politicking is a hard skill to acquire, and the real thing is learned by experience. A genuine politico would note that I left out obvious basics like listening to constituents and making negativity subordinate to positivity. The real bag of tricks is larger and far subtler than the above sketchy schematic indicates. When used with skill and experience, though, the tricks I outlined do work when combined with a stirring message of hope and uplift. Blending the messianism with credible Goliath-bashing makes it easy to portray said Goliath as obstructive, as well as dangerously wicked or compromised.

The purported Goliaths who are nothing of the sort tend to wind up bitter as a result of being dumped on in this way. What they don't understand is: they were easy targets merely because of their size. They were merely the tallest blade of grass that got mowed first. 

The United States Of Goliath

Therein lies the tragedy of Wilsonianism. The high and mighty European emperors with impressive far-flung empires are long gone, so it's the United States that's the tallest blade of grass on the world stage. As long as demotic politicians are politicians, some level of America-bashing is inevitable. Sadly, the U.S. can credibly be branded as "hypocritical" for no better reason than a new President taking office and implementing a new foreign policy.

After all, it's a lot easier to portray the United States as comfortable than as afflicted. Exceptions, like 9/11, are few. The reality of democratic politicking makes it quite possible for pro-democracy to morph into anti-Americanism. Were the United States not to possess tried-and-true countermeasures known to the dark art of international relations, fostering democracy would be little more than a mug's game. Radical Islamists are merely the latest crop of politically astute beneficiaries; they're like the Eurocommunists and assorted tagalongs in the 1970s. ESR

Daniel M. Ryan is currently watching the gold market. He can be reached at danielmryan@primus.ca. (C) 2011 Daniel M. Ryan

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