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Kurt Andersen’s Paean To Elites

Get ready to read the most cloying, dismissive, self-indulgent article maybe in the history of the Internet. Amazingly, it’s not in Slate, but the premise ought to be familiar – Kurt Andersen, a proud anti-populist, says that the problem with democracy is all this darn democracy.

So now we have a country absolutely teeming with irregular passions and artful misrepresentations, whipped up to an unprecedented pitch and volume by the fundamentally new means of 24/7 cable and the hyperdemocratic web. And instead of a calm club of like-minded wise men (and women) in Washington compromising and legislating, we have a Republican Establishment almost entirely unwilling to defy or at least gracefully ignore its angriest, most intemperate and frenzied faction—the way Reagan did with his right wing in the eighties and the way Obama is doing with his unhappy left wing now. Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and their compatriots are ideologues who default to uncivil, unbudging, sky-is-falling recalcitrance, as Keith Olbermann does on the left. Fine; in free-speech America, that’s the way we roll. But the tea-party citizens are under the misapprehension that democratic governing is supposed to be the same as democratic discourse, that elected officials are virtuous to the extent that they too default to unbudging, sky-is-falling recalcitrance and refusal. And the elected officials, as never before, are indulging that populist fantasy.

Just as the founders feared, American democracy has gotten way too democratic.

There are so many incredible moments in this piece – my favorite is the part where Andersen approvingly cites Judd Gregg saying “There’s a lot of populism going on in this country today, and I’m getting a little tired of it myself,” closely followed by the stated fear that America is in peril because attendees at Davos were getting worried. But you get the gist of it. These problem is that those darn people, speaking out and having opinions and all, is effect the ability for the self-appointed elites to govern the country unattended. If they could only repeal the 17th Amendment we’d be in business.

And look, Andersen may be talking about the right in this article, but he may as well be talking about the left – the dichotomy he sets up is not between right and left, but between the rabble and the self-appointed elites. And he counts himself among the latter. Maybe he should take a look at the track record. I’ll take the eight-hour workday, the progressive income tax, the end of child labor laws, Social Security and Medicare over supply-side economics, the Bush tax cuts and the Great Depression, but that’s just me.

Andersen displays the popular elite Village conceit that the real problem with America is all this argument, and that if people just got along and worked in a bipartisan way, ignoring their supporters, everything would be ducky. I don’t know what Republican Party he thinks is capable of doing that, or if he’s just in a general despair. Heck, Jon Kyl tells me that, outside of health care, Republicans are working together and doing just fine.

But my real problem with Andersen is this little head-pat where he says that the people must be amused before everybody heads to the back room to cut a deal.

Of course, in a democracy, the people, even the unreasonable and crazy people, have to be made to feel they’ve been heard. But the job of serious Washington grown-ups with big populist constituencies—both presidents Roosevelt, Reagan, even Richard Nixon—is to respond to the rage with the minimum necessary demagoguery, throw them a few bones to calm them down, and then make deals with your fellow members of the elected elite. Civility and sanity and prudence prevail, as the founders intended. Obama’s plainspoken human-to-human give-and-take with the House GOP caucus the other week was a perfect model for how the Washington elite could walk together back from the brink.

Andersen has a fanciful conception for how the country’s political system currently works. Because he’s inadvertently described it. The tea party on the right and the progressives on the left have an exceedingly minimal influence on output. You need only read this penetrating investigation into Billy Tauzin’s legacy at the trade lobby PhRMA, or this intense look at the nexus between lobbyists and the US media, to understand that the elite pretty much already control not just the discourse but the outcomes. The only slight difference from Andersen’s reading is that frequently, those in control aren’t elected. They just have the necessary cash to influence legislation.

I’m very sorry for Andersen that technology advanced from the days when his writing on dead trees was the only printable material from which people could get their information. I’m sorry individuals across the country have other outlets beyond constantly being told to shut up and let their enlightened Platonic betters do their work. I’m sorry we exist, and are ruining the elite party with all our “questions” and deadly snark.

But you’re really giving us far too much credit. You’re large and in charge already. Maybe it’s the fact that your ideas aren’t working that is causing all this dismay.

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David Dayen

David Dayen