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Thursday, November 18, 2004

George F. Will on the election

Validation By Defeat
Belief in the infantilism of the American public has been an expanding facet of 'progressive' thinking for 50 years and is especially intense now

By George F. Will

Nov. 22 issue - A small but significant, because articulate, sliver of the Democratic Party seems to relish interpreting the party's defeat as validation. This preening faction reasons as follows: the re-election of George W. Bush proves that 51 percent of the electorate are homophobic, gun-obsessed, economically suicidal, antiscience, theocratic dunces. Therefore to be rejected by them is to have one's intellectual and moral superiority affirmed.

This insult directed at the electorate must appall most Democrats, who would prefer to be validated by victories. But disdain for the judgment of average Americans now colors various aspects of American life.

The culture of victimhood, and of the presumed incompetence of individuals, is both a cause and a consequence of a society sprinkled with warning labels written for imbeciles. Such as? On an iron: DO NOT IRON CLOTHES ON BODY. On a fold-up child's stroller: REMOVE CHILD BEFORE FOLDING. These warnings are, in part, defensive measures designed to protect manufacturers against an important Democratic constituency—trial lawyers wielding their premise that when anything goes wrong for anyone, someone else is culpable and should be made to pay.

On a more serious matter, some Democrats who are determined to oppose President Bush's proposal for reforming Social Security are going to make a politically dangerous, because condescending, argument. As part of his "ownership society" agenda, Bush wants to give individuals the choice of investing a portion of their Social Security taxes in retirement accounts they would own—personal stock portfolios. This is a complex proposal, with large transition costs—a matter about which people can intelligently disagree. (Or unintelligently: The New York Times, continuing in campaign mode and accelerating its transformation from a newspaper into an advocacy institution, last Friday carried this headline: AARP OPPOSES BUSH PLAN TO REPLACE SOCIAL SECURITY WITH PRIVATE ACCOUNTS. But he has no plan to "replace" Social Security.)

However, some Democrats may oppose Bush's plan on the ground that it presupposes more intelligence than the average American possesses—that the average American cannot be trusted to invest competently. So part of the "pro choice" party believes that the average American should not be trusted to make choices about providing for his or her retirement.

Belief in the infantilism of the American public has been an expanding facet of some "progressive" thinking for 50 years—since the explosive growth of advertising, especially on television, in the 1950s. Then it began to be argued (see, for example, John Kenneth Galbraith's 1958 book "The Affluent Society") that Americans are a bovine, manipulable herd—putty in the hands of advertisers who can manufacture demand for whatever products manufacturers want to produce.

This new theory—that the economy is powered not by the consumption of production but by the production of consumption—made a mockery of the idea of consumer sovereignty. Consumers, it was said, could no longer make up their minds because their minds were made up for them by irresistible forces beyond their control or even their cognizance.

A recrudescence of such thinking is one reason for the recent intensification of campaign-finance regulation. Advocates of the McCain-Feingold legislation that expanded government control over the quantity and content of spending on political communication argued that there is "too much money" in politics. And in the aftermath of this year's election, there they go again.

They are dismayed that political spending on the presidential race (including spending by the independent 527 groups) and on all House and Senate races totaled $3.9 billion—less than what Americans will spend on chips this year. One reason the money in politics is supposedly "too much" is that most of the money goes for advertising, and we know how powerfully it controls voters.

Actually, we don't know. For the record, John Kerry and groups supporting him spent more on advertising than Bush and groups supporting him did—nationally, and in Florida and Ohio.

It is passing strange. As the American public has become more educated, American intellectuals have become more disparaging of the public's intellectual incapacities and moral shortcomings. In 1940, more than half of the U.S. population had only an eighth-grade education, or less. Now that 85 percent are high-school graduates, 53 percent have some college education and 27 percent are college graduates, it is an article of faith among the progressive intelligentsia that the public is becoming increasingly obtuse, bigoted and superstitious.

There was a time—say, from the early 1930s to the mid-1960s, the period of the Democratic Party's ascendancy—when progressives thought their job was to increase the material well-being of ordinary Americans. It is not mere coincidence that the Democratic Party's strength has waned as its intellectuals' disapproval of ordinary Americans has waxed.

(c) 2004 Newsweek, Inc.


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