Democracy and the Grounds of Distrust

The fight over health care reform has grown surreal indeed. Here's Ezra Klein, who says our “democracy is sick”:

What we're seeing here is not merely distrust in the House health-care reform bill. It's distrust in the political system. A healthy relationship does not require an explicit detailing of the “institutional checks” that will prevent one partner from beating or killing the other. In a healthy relationship, such madness is simply unthinkable. If it was not unthinkable, then no number of institutional checks could repair that relationship. Similarly, the relationship between the protesters and the government is not healthy. The protesters believe the government capable of madness. There is no evidence for that claim, which means that there is no answer for it, either. That claim is not about what is in this bill, or what government has done in Medicare and Medicaid and the VA. It is about what a certain slice of Americans think their government — and by extension, their fellow citizens — capable of.

It requires an amazing kind of selective amnesia to think that there is “no evidence' that the U.S. government is “capable of madness.” The government of the United States invaded Iraq and its agents have killed many tens of thousands people on the basis of the fact that some Saudis trained in Afganistan flew planes into the World Trade Center, plus some lies. Torture, extraordinary rendition, indefinite detention, etc. I call that madness. Of course, Ezra means the other parts of government concerned with domestic affairs. But not the parts that break into peoples' houses and destroy their lives for selling contraband herbs, or that subject us constantly to mendacious propaganda about drugs. Our government — and by extension our fellow citizens — is capable of terrible things and proves it every single day. Is it really possible to love government so much, to invest so much hope in its benevolent efficacy, that we grow blind to its evident capacity for evil? Anyway, there must be some parts of the government that are not capable of madness. Ezra invites us to think about those when considering health care reform. Will you accept?
I suspect Ezra thinks that his side of the debate has done nothing to engender distrust. But that would be wrong. The reason I wrote a whole paper about the “noble lies” underpinning the American Social Security system is precisely that our system did and does violate the spirit of transparency and openness needed for good-faith democratic deliberation. And, as I argued last month in my column for The Week, the demonstrated willingness of Democrats, both politician and wonk, to dissemble about whether or not they're trying to set in motion a chain reaction toward a single-payer system practically demands distrust.
I get fed up when intensely ideological partisans, left or right, start to officiously scold a skeptical democratic public for failing democracy by veering wildly from the party line. We should not be surprised when a history of prevaricating partisan strategy calls forth a paranoid response. Ezra's right that this is bad for democracy. But if he wants Americans to put more trust in politics, he might try advocating a politics more deserving of trust.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center