Thursday, August 13, 2009

Review essay

Book Review

Organized Shouting


Is Democracy Possible Here? Principles For a New Political Debate

by Ronald Dworkin
Princeton University Press

The Doomed Wish for Rational Politics

My elderly passenger knows arithmetic as well as I do. Still, she insists that her friends are right to drive all the way from Hamburg to the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation in order to save 10 cents per gallon for gas.

We do the numbers together. Their 25-mile round trip takes at least a gallon of gas. If they are to save a dime a gallon, they’d have to buy at least 26 gallons of gas before they save the first dime.

“Well at least they’re not giving all that tax money to the government,” she says. “That’s why they drive to the Reservation.”

So goes the logic in the Southtowns, where the government, in the person of Erie County Sheriff pilot Kevin Caffrey, rescues Zoar Valley campers when the Cattaraugus floods them out, and where government, in the form of New York State disaster-recovery funds, will help restore Gowanda.

Long after the presidential election, there are still plenty of “Ron Paul for President” signs stapled to utility poles in Hamburg, Evans, and Brant. The anti-government libertarian streak is wide there. In our no-growth county, there are still subdivisions going up down there, and the new strip plazas on Route 5 have been joined by a chain hardware store to compete with 100-year-old Shultz Hardware in Angola village. About 12 percent of eligible voters in Evans just voted to cut their town council—the very body that approves subdivisions and strip plazas—from five to three. Tax-hating Evans residents drive just four or five miles to the Res for gas, and for them, it makes some sense, as commuting to the big city is at least a 45-mile round trip. Their choice of exurban rather than urban life is an expensive one, especially for the 31 percent of Evans households that get most of their income from Social Security. The Senecas’ tax-free gas helps defray the cost of “freedom.”

This is democracy in action, folks. Democracy in America is still much as deTocqueville described it: illogical persnickety white folks, especially not-overly-educated non-urban white folks, asserting their independence. Sarah Palin is not an aberration: She’s an American tradition born again.

So why does a grown-up intellectual like Ronald Dworkin, a distinguished legal theorist with Ivy credentials, believe that these people, these Americans, are going to participate in a reasoned debate about anything?

Dworkin wrote Is Democracy Possible Here? before the Bush-Madoff bubble began bursting in 2007, and, politically speaking, a very long time before the collapse of the conservative ascendancy of George Bush, Karl Rove, Rush Limbaugh, and the rest. Dworkin’s brief volume is a mile-marker in our ongoing national navel-gaze. As we haven’t yet seen the shelf-full of Age of Obama books, and because Dworkin is such a respected heavyweight, his points are not yet obsolete, and probably never will be.

That’s the scary part.

Think back to 2005 or so. As Dworkin was composing this book, George Bush had just been re-elected over John Kerry. You remember John Kerry: He’s the senator who attended an elite prep school, married the widow of the Heinz Ketchup heir, has a face like a horse (Kerry walks into a bar, bartender says, “Senator, why the long face?”), was squishy about religion, and who got Swiftboated. He lost the election because he and his campaign team were never able to cross the class divide and tell the rest of his story, which is that he put his life on the line for the men under his command, that he chased down snipers and personally put them to bloody death, that he was wounded in action, and that all the while he was in Vietnam, little Georgie Bush was snorting coke and downing shots at a stateside Air National Guard. Kerry lost because self-aware Catholics, evangelicals, and other folks who hunger for idealized parent figures perceived that Kerry and his team publically elevated their pinkies as they drank their tea.

Religion scares the crap out of liberals. Religious identity is an enormous definer of culture, about equal, says I, with class (which is often but not always about one’s income). In Kerry versus Bush 2004, class and affect and manner and religious identity trumped rational debate. In Obama versus McCain 2008, affect and manner and insanely good organizing trumped religious identity, but probably would not have done so had not financial elites screwed everybody so badly that a majority of voters were frightened into rationality.

Dworkin doesn’t write about politics. His job is to think about philosophy and values, and to try to get to a purely sane and not a spun or shouted or image-driven place. But because it’s politics, he dives right into the hardest part: religion. The guts of this book concerns America’s evolution from a “tolerant religious society” to a “tolerant secular society,” and the very difficult time that we’re going to keep having because that evolution isn’t done.

You should take this book to a sandy beach as a part of your escape from the daily assault of media mediocrity and mendacity. It will help you think afresh about democracy. This book is like a day at the Chautauqua Institute: a little stiff, a bit formal, a bit preachy. Read it in a comfortable place, and then reward yourself with something naughty involving alcohol, chocolate, or some other enjoyable behavior when you’re done.

But first, engage Dworkin engaging the issues that the estimable John Locke engaged, and that the tiresome John Rawls never got right. Two hundred years ago, Locke wrote opaquely but influentially, in his “Letter on Tolerance,” that religion and politics had to find a way to co-exist without the government forcing conversions on anybody. Dworkin writes about the same stuff, and the good news is that he does not write like a philosopher: With a can of cold soda and your sunscreeny fingers separating the pages, Dworkin can actually convince the reader to do the work and make the close, logical distinctions between religious values that speak only within the bounds of a faith community and the ethical behavior that our laws have to support, encourage, and even mandate.

The person who wrote this was worried sick that George Bush’s politics would triumph forever—that the Bush crowd’s anti-government rhetoric would destroy aid to the poor and undermine decades of economic cushioning against the inevitable injuries caused by capitalism. The author set himself a big task: to get folks thinking about basic concepts of justice, and then to move from concept to political discourse.

That last task is yet to be completed. After you read this, go to the anti-government Southtowns, whose voters voted heavily for McCain and whose drivers like their Seneca gas tax-free, but whose incomes come from transfer payments, whose roads are subsidized by county and state funds, and whose emergencies are addressed by government talent and money. Reason with them? Good luck. Promise them something free and explain that taxes are used to fight folks whose religion is different from theirs? You’ll get elected every time.

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