Debunking Democracy

Attention Deficit Democracy
by James Bovard.
Palgrave Macmillan 2005. 291 pages, hardcover, $26.95.

It lies to us. It steals our money, then uses it to ship us overseas where we fight and die. It dictates how much water can trickle through our showerheads, the price we’ll pay for milk, nuts, and sugar, the speeds at which we drive, whether and what we can smoke. It petulantly punishes all who disobey.

You’d think we’d hate democratic government. Instead, we equate it with benevolence, fairness, and all that’s good. Our leaders tout democracy as a political panacea, convincing us to sacrifice our children’s lives and grandchildren’s wallets to spread it worldwide.

Such monolithic opinion makes James Bovard’s newest book, Attention Deficit Democracy, all the more arresting. The author plants himself squarely in the path of democracy’s triumphal progress like the “tank man” at Tiananmen Square and says, “Wait a minute.”

Mr. Bovard is a political philosopher with both feet so firmly on the ground that his head can’t get lost in the clouds. He’s published in excess of a thousand articles as well as eight books on politics, ranging from the classic Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty (St Martins, 1994) to detailed and witty analyses of the last two administrations (Feeling Your Pain [St. Martin’s Press, 2000] and Bush Betrayal [Palgrave Macmillan, 2004]). He’s also a wordsmith who sports with the language; if you prefer humorless prose larded with jargon, generalities, and pompous pronouncements, Mr. Bovard is not your man. Rather, he writes of government’s “plundering and blunderings,” its “fogbanks of falsehoods.” He’s entertainingly generous with quips and epigrams.

He’s also an iconoclast’s iconoclast. While much of the western world unquestioningly accepts democracy’s pretenses­-it is the best form of government; it allows every citizen a voice in public affairs so that we actually govern ourselves; democratic countries don’t go to war with each other; America should foist this best of all systems on other nations for their own good-Mr. Bovard not only questions those pretenses, he proves them false.

He begins by shredding the shibboleth that democracies reflect the will of the people, especially when people are ignorant of most or all of what their government does. “Modern democracy is based on faith that the people can control what they do not understand. As government has grown by leaps and bounds, ‘government by the people’ has become one of the great fairy tales of our times.” He cites statistics on our appalling political ignorance–86% of likely voters in 1992 could name the Bush family’s dog, but only 15% realized that both Bush and Clinton supported the death penalty–and then shows how this ignorance plays into the government’s hands. Politicians prevaricate, flagrantly, regularly, and usually without being caught, because the electorate’s ignorance acts like lie insurance. On those rare occasions when we discern a whopper, we merely shrug: we don’t understand the menace of political power, so we underestimate the malevolence of those seeking it.

This same ignorance makes us pushovers for fearmongering. Politicians routinely exaggerate threats, whether from Al Qaeda or El Nino, so that a panicked public will beg for protection. This ploy has worked especially well since 9/11. Mr. Bovard reminds us that “insofar as government is increasingly relying on fear to secure support and submission, government degrades the people…Those who think that terrorism changed everything forget the ancient tradition of politicians frightening people into submission. Nothing the U.S. government did in the wake of 9/11 revealed any fundamental change in how politicians manipulate emotions and perceptions.”

Most Americans believe in democracy as blindly as some Moslems believe in the Koran. Alas, democratic fanatics are as dangerous as any others, willing to condone manslaughter and outright murder for their cause. Mr. Bovard cites casualties ranging from a Haitian massacre in 1918 that killed thousands to those of World War I and the Vietnam War: each time, the deaths were excused because they supposedly made the world safe for democracy. Their faith even allows believers to justify or deny torture. Though the photographic evidence from Abu Ghraib seems incontrovertible, true believers shrug it off much as the Catholic Church did Galileo’s proof that the earth revolves around the sun.

The highest sacrament of democracy is, of course, voting. Many Americans consider it a sacred rite, akin to sending Mother’s Day cards and flossing once a day. Perhaps that’s because “elections are assumed to protect and serve the citizenry by the equivalent of some type of divine intervention.” But Mr. Bovard yanks the curtain off the voting booth. He notes that elections used to be seen “as a means for people to protect themselves against rulers” because, in Edmund Burke’s words, those elected acted as “a check to insolent, licentious ministers, a terror to ambitious statesmen, a defense against corruption in high offices, and against the violent temper of a prince aiming at arbitrary power.” “But,” Mr. Bovard observes, “elections lost their classic function of a defense against government because people [in democracies] supposedly needed no defense against themselves. Instead of seeking representatives to safeguard their rights, people now seek strong leaders or saviors to redeem their lives and protect them from all harm, 24/7. In the United States, elections have become largely a question of the two major parties taking turns trampling rights and plundering the Treasury.”

Mr. Bovard also explores democracy’s value to politicians as a device for manipulating their fellow citizens. William Penn warned in 1693, “Let the people think they govern, and they will be governed.” The Nazis understood this well, as Hermann Goering demonstrated during an interview with an American intelligence officer. When the latter announced that “in a democracy, the people have some say in the matter [of declaring war on another country] through their elected representatives…”, Goering replied, “Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”

If this endorsement is chilling, so are the realities behind democracy’s myths. We frequently hear that democracies are peaceful, that they don’t fight each other. This is patently untrue and so easily disproved we wonder why few folks before Mr. Bovard have challenged it. He traces the bromide to Immanuel Kant, who fondly hoped that “if the consent of the citizens is required in order to decide that war should be declared…nothing is more natural than that they would be very cautious in…decreeing for themselves all the calamities of war.” But it is a long and impossible leap from Kant’s theorizing to rowdy reality, where democracies are as bellicose as any other nation. Mr. Bovard lists the 19 countries the world’s most famous and powerful democracy has “attacked or invaded” since World War II, then examines other democracies, historical as well as here-and-now, to prove that they are as prone to war as monarchies or dictatorships.

Seeing things as we wish rather than as they are always has consequences. Sometimes those consequences are minor, as when we imagine we can still wear last year’s bathing suit. Other times, they’re lethal. Before any more parents bury sons and daughters who died spreading democracy, before we burden our future with monstrous debt, before we mangle more bodies and break more spirits torturing people who oppose America’s advancing democratic empire, we should examine our premises. Attention Deficit Democracy makes that duty a pleasure.

BECKY AKERS lives in New York City. She can be reached at: