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The Myth of the Sainted "People"

06.30.2008 06:37 | DISPATCHES

Most Democrats in the two houses of Congress balk at initiating impeachment proceedings against President Bush. We assume it's because, like a woman living with a rageaholic husband, they prefer to let their Republican colleagues lie as if they were sleeping dogs.

Is there something else that Democratic senators and members of the House of Representatives are afraid of? Perhaps they fear that impeaching the president might stir up buried shame on the part of many who voted for Bush. Americans already brought down their wrath on the administration in the 2006 election, as well as in polls. Rub any shame on their part about being "low-information voters" in their face and they just might kill the messengers.

But, in Just How Stupid Are We? (Basic Books, 2008), Rick Shenkman writes that we're "guilty of a certain kind of cowardice for our failure to inquire deeply into the mistakes the voters make." In lieu of a full-length review, we'll test the limits of fair use conventions by reproducing a few more quotes. You'll see how irresistible Just How Stupid Are We? is, even though it's a call for the American public to take inventory of itself.

What has happened did not happen as a result of a single leader's mistakes. We had a hand in it.
Any dolt can make fun of a politician. . . . But who takes the voters to task for their foolishness?
The Myth:
We have allowed the myth of The People to warp our politics. Not only are we often blind to the faults of the voters, owing to the myth of The People, but the voters themselves frequently base their opinions on myths. And there are not many myths with which we are as reluctant to trifle as. . . the myth of The People. Not only do we not dare speak publicly about The People's stupidity. We do not speak about the decision we have apparently taken as a society not to speak about the subject. [Emphasis added.]
Let's begin with the American voter's opinion of the Public Affairs Act of 1975. One poll shows that 40 percent of Americans hold an opinion about it. The trouble with that is that there is no such law.
The issues:
As soon as you have to explain something in this country you have already lost more of the public.
The part television might have played in the Lincoln-Douglas debates:
One's mind reels at the possibility that national policy about slavery might have been determined by the viewers' reaction to Lincoln's high-pitched voice or Douglas's short stature.
Our self-image:
Could it be that the more we identify as consumers the less we identify as voters?
Or, to put it another way:
Consumerism has meant the transformation of citizens into shoppers.
The last quote is from an article in the spring issue of World Affairs Journal entitled "Shrunken Sovereign: Consumerism, Globalization, and American Emptiness." The author, Benjamin Barber, who wrote Jihad vs. McWorld, elaborates:
There is of course endless talk about giving people 'what they want,' and how the market 'empowers' consumers. The market, indeed, does not tell us what to do; it gives us what we want -- once it gets through telling us what it is that we want. . . . [It] treats choice as fundamentally private [yet when] these derive from purely personal preferences, the results are often. . . technically 'free,' [but] dysfunctional with respect to our values and norms.
Consumer capitalism. . . . generates thinking on the model of the narcissistic child, infantilizing consumers to the point where puerility is not simply an option; it is a mandate. If the attitudes and behaviors that result turn out to undermine cultural values. . . that is too bad.
Corporations up; states down. Morphing from citizens to, exclusively, consumers is one smooth transition Americans are making.


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