Saturday, July 18, 2009

Scare the Demos

Harvey Mansfield had a great piece years ago about liberals and democrats. As I recall, the idea is that we are enough of a democracy that the "liberals"--elites of various kinds--need to win over the "democrats" or the demos to carry out their agendas. Probably Mansfield's greatest insight was that the liberals have become divided: those who make a lot of money are somewhat distinct (allowing for some overlap)from those who have a lot of education. Defenders of capitalism are more on the "right"; defenders of big government, social workers and teachers are more on the "left"; so they compete for the support of the ordinary people. The obvious way to do that is to sow distrust: those other people are (horrors!) elitists! They are protecting only their own interests, and they are indifferent to your interests, if not actively hostile to them! In fact, they may be conspiring to hurt you!

The capitalists may be poisoning you with supermarket food, or destroying the environment! The social workers may be conspiring to take away most of your income in taxes, and tell you what to do from minute to minute! You'll have no freedom left!

Unfortunately, while this can be fun and games, I think we are seeing it degenerate into a nasty orgy of what might be called a ritual, rather than a game, called "Scare the Demos."

Outbreaks of rare but nasty bugs or food now seem to routinely cause an over-reaction. Everyone trots out their agendas. Epidemiologists, who might almost be expected to be out of business with so many mass outbreaks a thing of the past, keep predicting, based on computer models, that the new one is going to be the big one. The left says we always knew capitalism was going to kill us somehow, agribusiness is very bad. The capitalist right says we need more agribusiness: how about irradiating all our food? How about more biotechnology?

Big companies now fear even small outbreaks, since the fear can be spread by the media, all over the world. To prevent that, they are dictating to their suppliers, sometimes going beyond any prevailing government regulations in an attempt to eliminate risk. If any animal waste might spread the nasty kind of e-coli (although it almost never does so) then let's prevent any animals at all from touching any crop. But: this violates certain environmental approaches to growing crops, and on the whole these radical practices may make outbreaks more likely, not less. They are not really based on science, but on a vulgar misunderstanding of science spread by frightened and self-interested people.

For me this has wider implications. Even with the Thatcher and Reagan 80s, the move or drift toward bigger government and social democracy seems clear. Conservatives of various kinds tend to have their own favourite government programs, but they also tend toward a kind of panic that government is growing too big. What to do? Since the growth of government is often motivated by fear--what if I get sick? old? both?; who's protecting me against risk?--the right needs to come up with somewhat different fears. Bush was a bit of a nightmare for many conservatives in that he promised massive new spending programs on health care and education, and basically delivered. What to do? Fortunately for a certain kind of conservative or neo-conservative, 9/11 reminded people of the reality of foreign enemies, trained to deadly purpose. The enemy in question was not a government or an army, but rather a rag-tag band of fanatics, but the focus was quickly turned to governments and "failed states," and Iraq was invaded. Orange alerts continued until the November 2004 presidential election, and then stopped.

The left couldn't help but be impressed. Obama campaigned on hope rather than fear, but in office he is mainly about fear: global warming, existing government health care programs going bankrupt (so we need a new, more expensive one), just don't let those bad people get back into office.

Didn't Swift lend his considerable talents to encouraging fear of modern science, especially scientific agriculture? Yes, but he did so in the service of true conservativism: small-town or rural life, and resistance to war. Probably no standing army. The neo-cons are a different breed. Also: Swift was often if not always joking.

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