Obama, the Stimulus, and the Great Worry

By Paul Mackintosh

“Is it possible that American voters have learned something about the consequences of choosing an intellectually challenged chief executive on the basis of a beer test?”

Susan Jacoby, The Age of American Unreason (Pantheon, 2008)

Watching the musicians perform at the Inauguration concert at the Lincoln Memorial last month, one might have thought that artists had been forbidden to perform in public during the Bush administration. There was a mixture of joyful liberation and political triumph that went well beyond what might have been expected at the celebration of one democratically elected President replacing another. Although my favorite post-election headline in November, from the Times of India, read: “US’ Finest Hour: Regime Change, By Vote;” the Inauguration concert suggested less the end of a particularly bad Presidential administration, than the celebration that came with the dismantling of the Berlin wall, 20 years earlier.

Perhaps this is no coincidence. One way to think about the current mess in the US is to imagine that it has taken the United States an additional 20 years to also lose the Cold War. Like the Soviet Union, the US has bankrupted itself through a combination of a foreign war it couldn’t afford, and an unprecedented degree of economic and social blindness at home. Like the former Soviet Republics in 1989, the US is faced with tasks more accurately described as building and rebuilding than as transitions or reforms, and a people who seem quite stunned at how rapidly and seriously the country’s circumstances seem to have changed.

When the Soviet Union was dissolved, the great question was whether democracy could flourish in the former Soviet Republics that had no democratic traditions, or historical experience with the Rule of Law. In East Germany and Czechoslovakia, on the other hand, there were healthier political traditions to dust off and draw on, and it was no surprise that transitions to democracy in these places were easier (if not always smooth).

Whether or not one believes that America also lost the Cold War, however, the great question in not whether the United States has the traditions or the history to recover. Unlike the case of Russia after the end of the USSR, the great worry concerning the US is not about organized crime, or even about corporate corruption (which flourished under Bush but can still be limited effectively if the President and Congress will act). Rather, the great worry is popular ignorance. By this I don’t mean the familiar claim that so many Americans vote “irrationally” or “contrary to their real interests” – a view that has been addressed persuasively by a wonderful and very under-appreciated recent book by Earl Shorris, The Politics of Heaven: American In Fearful Times (W.W. Norton, 2007) — but the very ordinary observation that Americans are remarkably unintelligent when it comes to matters of government and economics.

During the early years of the George W. Bush administration, I saw a bumper sticker on a car in New England that read: “Get Government Out Of My Medicare!” — Medicare being the government-funded program of health insurance. I consider this bumper sticker sighting a Joycean epiphany when it comes to my understanding of the ignorance problem in the US. What is remarkable here is not just a person fundamentally confused about what Medicare is, but someone confident enough to trumpet a canned “protest” without the slightest concern about whether it’s nonsense. This peculiar sort of confidence may explain why Americans elected George W. Bush, twice. As Susan Jacoby writes in her severe but important book, The Age of American Unreason:

“The issue is not whether Bush is as stupid as he sounds but that he, like so many … Americans … is unashamed of — and even seems quite proud of — his own parochialism and intellectual limitations.” (285)

How the Republicans capitalized on this distinctly American combination of prideful ignorance and a distrust of intelligence is addressed in Thomas Franks’ well-known explanation of the triumph of American Conservatism, What’s The Matter With Kansas? (Henry Holt, 2004). Jacoby also discusses the origins and staying power of anti-intelligence and anti-intellectual attitudes in the US, and it will be interesting to see whether/how the Republicans will try to revive this peculiar form of faux populism, given that Bush would seem to have exhausted its appeal for years to come.

But the energetic spirit, inspired goodness, and noticeable absence of cynicism that characterized the Obama Inauguration certainly held out the hope that his election represented something more than the expression of inarticulate frustration. Perhaps, one felt, this wasn’t a phenomenon to be explained away by that tired phrase: “It’s the economy, stupid!” Perhaps, one felt, it represented a widely shared recognition that the country needed to change course with respect to basic concerns like work, housing, income inequality, and health care.

Perhaps. But then came the Economic Stimulus Bill negotiations this month, the disappointing (because same-old) behavior of the Congress, and reports in the media that suggested that even in desperate economic times a great many Americans have attitudes about government no less confused than the Medicare bumper sticker.

Unfortunately, one has to wonder and worry about what the American people really believed when they elected Obama. One possibility, of course, is that the majority of Americans are committed to significant change and the House Republicans, who last week talked the same disingenuous talk they’ve been talking for more than a decade, are seriously out-of-touch with their constituents. Maybe the media’s selection of voices to broadcast was also misleading. An equally likely possibility, however, is that the majority of Americans are plenty angry at Bush and Wall Street, but no smarter about the way things work in the present, and are likely to work in the future, and no more interested in learning about these things than they were before the latest economic crisis. No smarter and no more committed to change than they were when they re-elected Bush and Cheney in 2004. And suddenly one sees that the parade of bright spirits and new hope that characterized the Inauguration is threatened by the hard rain described in Susan Jacoby’s book, written well before the banking crisis and the 2008 election:

“While an angry public may be the short-term solution, an ignorant public is the long-term problem in American public life.” (297)

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