Saturday, May 21, 2011

Thoughts on American Democracy

Here are some sad, pessimistic thoughts on American democracy by Matt Taibbi in an interview for Vice magazine. I've bolded the key bit:
You were in Russia for several years working for The Exile. Are we beginning to resemble the Russian class system? The wealthy oligarchs who rule everyone yet no one does anything about it?

I think there’s an argument to be made that we’re heading in that direction. That’s certainly not an idea that’s original to me.

It’s just more apparent now.

Sure, sure. There’s a guy at MIT, Simon Johnson, who used to be an IMF executive. He worked with developing third world economies and dealt with the whole issue of third world corruption for a long time. He wrote—from personal experience—about what he saw then and what he sees now with the financial services industry, and he basically says that we’re going down the same path. He sees a lot of the same things happening, such as the co-opting of the mainstream media and the corporate regulatory capture where you have former financial services industry employees running the regulatory agencies. I don’t think it’s on the same scale, but there are characteristics of it for sure.

Your opinion and, quite frankly, your distaste with your subjects comes through very strongly in your writing.

Right. Some journalists think you shouldn’t bring your personal feelings to a story. I definitely see that point of view and that approach, but I don’t follow it. I think one of the ways you can help a reader understand a topic is by first letting them know who you are and what your values are, and then showing them how you respond to the material. So me writing about how much X, Y, or Z pisses me off helps readers understand what’s important and what isn’t.

Do you still follow Russian politics? They’re gearing up for an election. I tend to envision Putin placing Medvedev on a platter and eating him on live television, or something of the sort.

They’re just your basic third-world kleptocracy—which is where everybody is headed. Well, everybody who still has a functioning government.


I think people are going to realize what a blip on the radar American-style democracy in the 20th century was. A big middle class that had a huge powerbase, financial interests, bosses giving benefits… all those things. It’s just a little blip in history. For the most part, concentrated wealth will make all the decisions and everybody else is dictated to. It’s going to be like that to varying degrees. The more corrupt it is the more it’s heading in that direction, and clearly a place like Russia is a very corrupt place.
I don't share this bleak perspective. I'm an a pessimistic optimist. I believe in democracy in the sense of Churchill: it is a bad system but better than all the rest. I think that with democracy the people will ultimately arise and "throw the bums out". It just takes a long time for a large mass of people to be aroused to the point of anger. It took about eight years for Americans to become disgusted with the Vietnam war. It has taken about thirty years for Americans to become disgusted with Reaganomics "trickle down" theories. That is far too slow for the impatient types. But all "faster" means of change result in worse government, more vile dictatorships of right and left. Only maddeningly slow democracy has a built-in lethargy that has the best promise of ultimately saving individual rights and delivering a true civil society based on justice and dignity and rule of law.

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