You're hurting my feelings!

In a column that gets pretty much everything wrong, Jim Hoagland of the Washington Post says that Americans' distrust of government is eroding democracy (okay he's right about that, but that's a good thing) and alienating the electorate. In a review of the book Dismantling Democratic States by Ezra Suleiman, he writes that Americans have carried the healthy skepticism of government to destructive lengths.

The relentless and prolonged assault by politicians and the public on the competence and motives of their government bureaucracies is slowly but surely undermining democracy in the Americas and Europe.

Sweet! The Founders would have been proud. They tried their hardest to undermine democracy.

That is the provocative thesis of an important new book, "Dismantling Democratic States," just published by Princeton University Press. Professor Ezra Suleiman shows that the phenomenon of bureaucracy-bashing perfected by recent U.S. presidents of both parties is rapidly spreading into European societies that once revered "neutral" civil servants as the guarantors of the nation-state's legitimacy.

And the problem is?

The winning politicians are compelled to "reinvent government" or try to coerce it into becoming an enterprise that values cost-cutting efficiency above all else.

Yeah, that would be horrible. Making government more efficient. Who wants that?

Civil service is about enforcing rules and procedures and treating all citizens and issues equally and not about values as that word is understood by politicians.

Civil 'service' is increasingly about being part of an elite class that lives of the largesse of the common man while using justifications of necessity and duty.

But it is not just foreign policy. "President Bush's current plan, as shown in the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, is nothing less than the privatization of the federal government," writes Suleiman. "The 170,000 employees . . . will not receive civil service protection" and private contractors will increasingly take over jobs now in the federal workforce.

The horror! Federal jobs becoming private jobs! Oh no!
(Leave aside the fact that Suleiman is conceptually completely wrong.)

Americans distrust government's powers and motives. They immediately get the joke that has a federal inspector or a state administrator fatuously saying: "We're from the government and here to help." Such suspicion is a healthy instinct -- but one that is being carried to destructive and demagogic lengths.

Suleiman agrees that bureaucracies need to be made more efficient and more responsive to public needs. But politicians today promise to reduce government's functions (as well as size) as a way of pandering to an alienated electorate. They pressure the career civil service to treat constituents as customers who are always right rather than as citizens who have civic obligations -- including the payment of taxes for common needs.

I'm disappointed. I thought the use of the word "obligations" to mean taxes stopped with Al Gore's failed presidential campaign. Suleiman is basically saying that rights no longer mean barriers to external violence, but rather obligations owed from each individual to other individuals. By extension, we can all stop what we are doing right now, and point fingers at each other for violating our rights.

Not enough is being done to correct the returning erosion of support for government in this time of war. Not enough is being done to fund and organize public health and security institutions to which we will all turn if and when the terrorists strike again here. Not nearly enough, in fact.

Let's see - are these same security institutions that prevent airlines from setting their own rules for safety precautions, something that might have prevented 9/11? Or the ones that are holding an American citizen hostage without criminal charges? Or the ones that are creating all-encompassing databases to spy on Americans?

Jim Hoagland and Ezra Suleiman are wrong. Skepticism and defiance of government is a proud, long standing, patriotic American tradition going back to the early days of the Republic.

Share this

After reading his opening

After reading his opening salvo, I expected to hear a justification for his claim that criticizing the "competence and motives of their government bureaucracies is slowly but surely undermining democracy." Yet he doesn't back up this claim at all, and instead uses the word "virtue word" of "democracy" through a propoganda technique called The Glittering Generality.

He even contradicts his own claim later in the article when he admits that "Americans distrust government's powers and motives" and that "politicians today promise to reduce government's functions (as well as size) as a way of pandering to an alienated electorate."

If we understand democracy to mean that political system which reflects the will of the majority, and if we admit that the will of the majority is to reduce government's functions and size, then it is not the case that these efforts undermine democracy. They may undermine government, yes, and they may undermine Hoagland's personal conception of what democracy should be, but they certainly do not undermine democracy in the way that term is generally used.

I think I speak for everyone

I think I speak for everyone when I quote Hubert H. Humphrey who said, "The right to be heard does not automatically include the right to be taken seriously."

"The surface of American

"The surface of American society is covered with a layer of democratic paint, but from time to time one can see the old aristocratic colours breaking through."
Alexis de Tocqueville

Many people identify genuine

Many people identify genuine democracy with decentralization, localism, and direct participation. The value of democracy, in that sense, is precisely its service in restraining the power of a centralized state machine. The ultimate in democracy is to abolish government altogether, by devolving its functions to the smallest possible local unit, placing it under direct popular control, and making participation and payment voluntary. The anarchist, as Benjamin Tucker put it, is an "unterrified Jeffersonian."

Hoagland makes the Chomskyite mistake of believing that centralized bureaucracies are amenable to genuinely "democratic" control. But in fact, they are not. The rule of state capitalist elites may be supplanted by the rule of liberal social engineers. But the replacement of David Rockefeller by Hillary Clinton is not the same thing as direct participation by the average person in the decisions that affect his life.

Hoagland reminds me of Katrina Vandenheuvel, who gloated after the 9-11 attacks that American trust in government was on the upswing. Distrust in government is a GOOD thing.

Kevin, Most people do not


Most people do not use "democracy" the way you do. Rather than voluntary relations, they mean majority rule by force. "Democracy" is used today to justify extortion, theft, violence, and involuntary servitude.

"Of all forms of government

"Of all forms of government and society, those of free men and women are in many respects the most brittle. They give the fullest freedom for activities of private persons and groups who identify their own interests, essentially selfish, whith the general welfare." Dorothy Thompson

Jonathan, That's why I


That's why I think it's necessary to reclaim a direct, participatory understanding of democracy from the damn goo-goos like Clinton. Government on the scale of a continent-sized empire, by definition, can NEVER be democratic. And it certainly isn't just "all of us working together." The goo-goo idea of "democracy" on a national scale, like the neocon idea of "rule of law," is just another word for class rule by men in suits.

I've seen enough of the workings of intergovernmental authorities at the local level, or of at-large aldermen in a city of 40,000, to understand how meaningless the idea of "popular control" is once you accept the representative principle. If it's so easy for banks and real estate developers to shut out genuine public input on creating an industrial park at taxpayer expense, using these methods, or for the local educational establishment to control city-wide school boards, how much easier is it for such interests to control policy on a national level?