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Do-gooders and Double Standards

Saturday, April 1, 2000

JOHN B. JUDIS. The Paradox of American Democracy: Elites, Special Interests, and the Betrayal of Public Trust. PANTHEON BOOKS. 320 PAGES. $26.00

BACK IN THE DAYS when the most popular self-help business book was called The One-Minute Manager, some of my friends devised a game of conversational one-upsmanship we called "The One-Minute Intellectual." All you had to do to play "The One-Minute Intellectual" was take some idle but interesting notion that had just occurred to you and spin it into an impossibly grand theory that would actually require years of research and hundreds of pages to prove true. For example: The post-modern age began with the possibility of the destruction of all human life on the planet. Or: The impulse to cut historical figures down to size is a product of the collapse of the mass and the rise of individualism.

You can always make these theories sound good — for one minute. After a minute, you can’t overcome the realization that they’re essentially silly, or vague, or logically inconsistent, and just as quickly as you’ve tried to convince your fellow one-minute intellectuals you’ve had the first really new idea about something in years, you discard it and move onto the next.

The "One-Minute Intellectual" game is a self-conscious parody of honest and genuine intellection. For what intellectuals do, after all, is work with ideas the way mechanics work with engines or a sculptor works with clay. They play with them, try them out, take them apart, put them back together and throw away the scraps and the leavings.

Properly understood, the term "intellectual" is not a designation of honor but merely a description of a type of worker who makes his living by producing thoughts and then explaining them. Just as there are good and bad mechanics, there are competent intellectuals and incompetent intellectuals.

John B. Judis has just produced a book called The Paradox of American Democracy that demonstrates what happens when an idea-worker doesn’t discard a notion best suited for a ripping round of "The One-Minute Intellectual." It clearly began with Judis saying to himself, "You know, there’s a lot of talk about how bad elites are, but they’ve done a lot of good in this country, only not in the way people think."

He should have left it there and moved on to the next idle thought. But instead Judis raised foundation money, took time off from work, and devoted a good deal of energy to producing a volume of political philosophy that reveals him to be an intellectual of uncommon incompetence. The Paradox of American Democracy retells the entire history of the United States in the twentieth century as a struggle between competing ideas propounded by members of the American elite. That is an unexceptionable, though very broad, point. Judis seems intent on saving the word "elite" from the pejorative connotation first assigned to it by the radical sociologist C. Wright Mills, author of The Power Elite — and more recently by populists like Patrick J. Buchanan, with whom Judis is now making common cause.

But in The Paradox of American Democracy, some ideas are more equal than others. According to Judis, when elites join together to promote income redistribution and wholesale political change, they are doing so in a disinterested way based on solid social-science research — or they’re trying to help "distribute power downward," which he seems to think is the same thing. Case in point: the head of the Ford Foundation in the 1960s and ‘70s, McGeorge Bundy. Fresh from helping to embroil the United States in the Vietnam War as John Kennedy’s national security advisor, Bundy cleansed himself of any such taint at the Ford Foundation because, Judis writes approvingly, "he considered himself above considerations of class and faction." Which is to say, he used the Ford Foundation’s money to get himself right with the Democratic left by offering massive funding to radical groups and causes.

Similarly, the circle of New Deal thinkers who emerged from Felix Frankfurter’s Harvard Law School classes was not an ideological clique seeking to cure the ills of the Depression with socialist solutions, but rather a sober crew of thinkers who examined the evidence and came to the reasonable conclusion that massive income redistribution and a system of controls on large corporations were the only way out of America’s economic bind.

And the Naderite effort during the Carter years to create "a new federal office of consumer representation that would consolidate all the different government consumer departments, represent consumers before federal agencies and courts, and conduct research on their behalf" was simply a reformist measure based on the need to level the playing field between individual Americans and the K Street lobbyists who control Washington. Nope, nothing ideological here — even though in the very next sentences Judis writes, "Nader and the unions also backed tax reform that would remove the loopholes for oil profits, capital gains and overseas profits" and "supported a national health insurance bill."

What Nader and the unions were seeking, in other words, was an intrusion into the functioning of the free market that would make Sweden look like Singapore. And in Judis’s One-Minute Intellectual fantasy, it all would have passed in Congress too, were it not for the work of the bad guys who cause the paradox of the book’s title.

For when elites gather to propound an idea of which Judis does not approve — which is to say, any conservative free-market idea — they are doing so merely to promote the interests of "capitalism." They are not working to better their country, but are serving instead to maximize profits, hurt workers, and enrich "corporations" — a word used in The Paradox of American Democracy in the same contemptuous way the term "Muggles" is used in the Harry Potter books to describe the selfish and blind bourgeoisie from which young Harry has fortunately escaped.

AS JUDIS TELLS IT,  the evidence these bad elites adduce to support their arguments is inevitably flawed and distorted. Worse still, unlike the Harvard boys who sat at Frankfurter’s feet, their academic credentials are just not up to par! Judis uses as one key example Murray Weidenbaum, later the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Reagan administration. Weidenbaum "was far from being a leader in his profession," Judis sneers, because after getting his Ph.D. he worked as a "corporate researcher . . . he was the economist as lobbyist." And then Weidenbaum had the temerity to teach at Washington University. That’s in St. Louis, Mo. How awful.

What’s even worse, Weidenbaum took money from elite foundations to promote conservative economic ideas. These foundations were not noble, like the Ford Foundation. Because they supported free-market ideas, they were serving the interests of the corporatist profit-making structure. And when Weidenbaum issued a pioneering study in 1978 on the hidden cost of regulation, Judis says his work "was open to obvious objections." Such as? Well, "its purpose appeared to be overtly political." Which is to say, it sought to affect the debate on Capitol Hill about the danger of regulation.

Oh, foul Weidenbaum! Peter, Paul and Mary would never sing of thee!

What’s more, the bad guys use the magical tools of corporate public relations to seduce the American people into believing the wrong things about capitalism. It happened in the 1920s, when in Judis’s fantasy the labor movement should have gathered strength but failed to do so because business had learned during World War I how to control public opinion. He quotes Edward Bernays, the supposed father of the PR business, as saying, "As civilization has become more complex, the technical means have been invented and developed by which opinion may be regimented." (Tell that to the makers of Pepsi Clear, New Coke, or the billions of other products and ideas that have not exactly compelled public opinion to fall into lockstep. Just because Bernays was Siegmund Freud’s nephew doesn’t mean he was right about everything — or anything, for that matter.)

Seventy years later, in Judis’s ludicrous retelling of a very recent tale, the same techniques were deployed to turn the American people against the Clinton health care plan. Initially, this plan, devised by one of those elite groups Judis likes — the Ira Magaziner group, which marshaled lots of evidence to prove that the government should step in and take control of one-seventh of the U.S. economy — was so clearly in the national interest that 70 percent of the public supported it. But then the evil corporations stepped in. They aired the famous "Harry and Louise" commercials — which were probably seen by, in all, a few million people — and their representatives gathered on Wednesday mornings at the Washington offices of Grover G. Norquist. By the time their sorcery was concluded, the Clinton health care plan had collapsed. "In the past," Judis writes sorrowfully, "elites within the business community had intervened to prevent the most venal interests from dominating Congress." But this time, there were "no comparable organizations and no comparable leadership that would have rescued health care reform from oblivion."

The fact that the Clinton health care plan was a lousy and unpopular idea once the public began to understand its true purpose — which was the result of honest education as well as propaganda — had nothing to do with it, of course. Indeed, though Judis pays obeisance to the power of ideas, he actually has no respect for them. He believes that money trumps ideas, that capitalism always wins when it gets motivated, that there is no hope for the working man in the face of the ceaseless march of the almighty dollar.

What he is, most of all, is a sentimentalist of a very dated stripe. Judis equates any improvement in the lot of ordinary Americans with the strength of the labor movement in this country. Though The Paradox of American Democracy is written in a prose style that might kindly be described as dull, it’s animated by a deep sentimentality for the iconography of the Old Left. Confronted with a sentence like this, you can practically hear a scratchy Pete Seeger recording of "Joe Hill" playing in the background: "The rise of corporate capitalism had undermined the power of the individual citizen to affect history. The ordinary worker, forced to sell his labor power to a large company, was no match for the managers and financiers of the new capitalism."

The "worker"! And what of the worker today — the one in an employee stock-ownership plan, the one who has found it possible in the 1990s to find employment with no difficulty, the one who is moving steadily or maybe rapidly up? That worker is of no interest to John B. Judis, who pays lip service to the post-industrial economy but whose image of the way ordinary Americans do their jobs is still redolent of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. (There was a fire there. In 1911.)