Commentary Magazine


The Paradox of American Democracy by John B. Judis

The Paradox of American Democracy: Elites, Special Interests, and the Betrayal of the Public Trust
by John B. Judis
Pantheon. 320 pp. $26.00

Have special interests conquered American politics and government? Several leading presidential candidates insist that they have—and seek political advantage from the charge that their rivals are in the grip of contributors and lobbyists. Innumerable schemes for “campaign-finance reform” assume that John Q. Public has been bloodied by the clawing of fat cats—and that tighter government regulation is the only way to overcome the resultant political apathy and voter ennui. As for the media, they seem to take the accuracy of this charge for granted.

There is, of course, something to it. Anyone who observed Congress earmarking the budget surplus for fiscal year 2000 saw plenty of pork being grilled. And anyone who follows the doings of state legislatures, county councils, and school boards cannot help noticing that many decisions are made (or avoided) because of pressure from sundry interest groups.

The picture, however, is not so simple. When does a worthy cause become a vested interest? When does a guardian of one’s own welfare turn into a “lobbyist”? And are lobbyists per se really a bad thing? After all, ours is a large and complex polity in which nobody can possibly represent himself in every forum or personally monitor the positions and votes of every elected official. By closely tracking affairs of state on behalf of our interests and enthusiasms, effective lobbyists, it might be argued, enable the rest of us to devote our energies to earning a living, raising a family, mowing the lawn, reading magazines, and making whoopee.

A thoughtful book seeking balance in such matters would be a welcome, if not particularly electrifying, contribution to public enlightenment. A one-sided screed, however, while apt to raise the voltage, can only subtract from our understanding. That, unfortunately, is what John Judis has produced. An often perspicacious journalist who has moved some distance from his past affiliations—now a senior editor at the New Republic, he was once an activist in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and an editor of the radical publication Socialist Revolution—he appears, to judge by this disappointing book, to be returning to his roots.

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The thesis Judis adumbrates in The Paradox of American Democracy is that our governmental institutions are gravely undermined and our politics besmirched by a single genre of special interest: “K Street.” That is his code phrase for the Washington-based representatives of major corporations and their sundry organizations. Bent on securing wealth for themselves and their shareholders, they sweep the public interest before them like leaves in a typhoon.

Things, in Judis’s telling, were not always thus. In the 1960′s, American politics witnessed a kind of “populist pluralism”—a decade of “true reform” akin to the Progressive era and the New Deal. Thanks to a coalition encompassing everyone from trade unionists to feminists, we succeeded for a time in widening “the scope of politics . . . to include consumer protection, environmental regulation, and the guarantee of sexual and racial equality.”

By the 1970′s, however, trouble descended in the form of a conservative “business counteroffensive” that, although riven by inner tensions of its own, established durable barriers to the spirit of reform. In chapters with titles like “The Frustration of Reform” and “Sleepwalking Toward the Millennium,” Judis regales us with tales of influence-peddling and other forms of covert and overt private intervention whose cumulative effect has been to subvert the workings of our democracy.

What to do? The rot, having been caused by corporate might, can only be eradicated by government. To that end, contends Judis, echoing the Progressive-era founder of the New Republic Herbert Croly, we need strong, multifaceted federal institutions that set rules, impose limits, and interpolate themselves into nearly every sphere of society. Only thus will we ensure that the “betrayal of public trust” is brought to an end.

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Judis’s diagnosis of the American condition and his remedy for it are clear enough, and their echoes can be heard in the stump speeches of Al Gore, Bill Bradley, and John McCain. Unfortunately, his analysis is at least as superficial as theirs, if also much more extreme.

Without question, business is a powerful force in American politics. But it is by no means the only huge, policy-blocking concentration of power and self-interest in the land. In the field of education, for instance, it is not corporate America that keeps poor children trapped in rotten urban schools; it is, rather, mainly the teacher unions (the largest of which is headquartered not on K but on M Street in Washington), school-board associations, and myriad other groups that live off tax dollars.

This other face of special interests is visible in many spheres of our public life, yet Judis is all but oblivious to it. At the same time, there is still another concentration of interests for which he has nothing but praise—which, indeed, he refuses to recognize as interests at all: these are the various “disinterested elites,” as he calls them, that in his judgment serve as balance wheels in our political machinery. He associates these elites with such organizations as the Council on Foreign Relations in the 1950′s, the Brookings Institution of the 1960′s, and the Ford Foundation in the 70′s.

In Judis’s estimation, all these places were fonts of wise and dispassionate public-policy counsel until they too were captured by corporate interests in the Reagan years. Complicit in that takeover, he adds darkly, were the media, which in the 1980′s began to treat the ideas generated in right-wing organizations like the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the Heritage Foundation “with the same respect” as those issuing from politically “disinterested” sources like the Brookings Institution, the National Bureau of Economic Research, and university economics departments. In one of this book’s more astounding passages, Judis complains that the press

accepted the canard that different views simply reflected different ideologies and that to be fair, both Left and Right, liberal and conservative, had to be represented. Once this concession was made, the conservatives triumphed, because in the late 1970′s and 1980′s they had far more money than their rivals with which to broadcast, publish, and promote their opinions.

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For John Judis, in short, there is only one kind of special interest in America—the kind represented by corporations and their lackeys in conservative think tanks. Other voices in the national debate, i.e., the leftist kind, are really “disinterested,” having only the greater good of the nation at heart. From this premise flow ineluctably his balmy belief that the Brookings Institution’s experts are somehow more “disinterested” than those of AEI, his notion that it is the job of the press to adjudicate between Left and Right by favoring the former and delegitimizing the latter (it will surely come as news to many journalists that they have been remiss in their performance of this particular duty), and his delusion that conservatives have “triumphed.” On this last point, one need only consider the record of how the Ford Foundation has dispensed its largesse over the past 25 years, funding one cutting-edge countercultural project after another, to assess Judis’s bizarre claim that that giant institution has been “emasculated” by capitalists.

But the most alarming aspect of Judis’s book is not its analysis but its prescription: that the way to free American politics from the grip of special interests is to return to the antics of the 60′s. A true child of that era, Judis cherishes “popular movements” rooted in a “mobilized base outside of Washington” and defined by “their ability to disrupt the normal patterns of life—whether through strikes, demonstrations, marches, or boycotts.” He positively rhapsodizes over the tactics employed by his own erstwhile political movement, SDS (including its violent “Weatherman” faction), along with summer riots in major cities, the Black Panthers, and other bygone glories.

True, he admits, some of the revolutionaries of the late 60′s eventually went too far. But more than the chaos, destruction, and death for which they were responsible, what Judis mainly regrets is the conservative reaction they triggered—the elections of Ronald Reagan as governor of California in 1967 and Richard Nixon as President in 1968. Defending the movements of the 1960′s, including their “radical wing,” he writes glowingly that they

helped force the Nixon administration to withdraw from Vietnam and . . . provoked Congress and the administration into pouring money into cities and into adopting a strategy of affirmative action in hiring and federal contracts. During Nixon’s first term, spending on Johnson’s Great Society programs and on welfare and food stamps dramatically increased, while spending on the military went down.

A convincing argument—at least to anyone who applauds the bitter racial polarization fostered by affirmative action, the establishment of an all-but-ineradicable culture of dependency and an all-but-permanent underclass thanks to Great Society programs, and the abandonment of South Vietnam to Communism.

In the end, this flimsy attempt to maintain that American democracy has been undone by corporate greed tells us far less about the genuinely important subject of interest groups and how to regulate them than it does about certain characteristic intellectual habits that, having somehow survived the destruction they helped to wreak, evidently stand ready to try all over again.

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