Damon Linker on appeals to common sense in American politics is worth reading, even if he overlooks the fact that like all rhetorical tropes, celebrating the intuition of the American people is a thoroughly bipartisan tendency (FDR: “The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails: admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”) But I wonder if something has changed since William Jennings Bryan or Roosevelt or even Reagan asked the electorate to ignore the received wisdom of eggheads in favor of their own instincts.
We live in an increasingly complex age. Instead of enhancing public discourse, the spread of information often overwhelms our ability to process new ideas. A few weeks ago, Freddie argued that the inherent complexity of the Afghanistan debate demonstrates the fallacy of empire-building in an egalitarian, democratic society, as the electorate simply isn’t equipped to parse the merits of occupation vs. withdrawal or counter-insurgency vs. counter-terrorism. His criticism is telling, but isn’t it equally true of just about every domestic policy dispute out there? If the electorate can’t handle the debate over Afghanistan, are voters really prepared to assess the likelihood of catastrophic global warming or the desirability of the health care public option?
I cringe whenever Mark Steyn or some other conservative bomb thrower takes the “Climategate” scandal as evidence of a world government conspiracy aimed at eradicating freedom. But I’m almost sympathetic to their credulous fans, who haven’t mastered the intricacies of climatology but do know there’s something awfully fishy about those leaked emails. The enduring popularity of the “death panels” myth is also symptomatic of reasonably informed voters who haven’t the time or inclination to read the latest think tank study grappling with an incredibly complex health care debate.
The divide between voters and policy-makers has been explored elsewhere and is probably an inevitable consequence of politics in any egalitarian democracy. But as society becomes more complex, so does policy-making, and the gulf between the electorate’s intuition and sophisticated expert analysis continues to grow. Perhaps the most significant example of this divide is the now-infamous bank bailout, which remains incredibly unpopular despite its near-unanimous support among political and financial elites.
Linker seems largely unconcerned by all this, and indeed is more worried by the prospect of “common sense” infecting a political platform than any disconnect between appeals to populism and actual policy. That voters should be reasonably well-equipped to make informed judgments, however, strikes me as pretty integral to the health of our democracy. In some cases, we may be able to avoid the problem of deliberation altogether (we could withdraw from Afghanistan, for example). Other circumstances make a clash between common sense and expert opinion almost inevitable. In the midst of a systemic economic crisis, we didn’t have the luxury of plugging our ears and ignoring the debate over the bank bailout. And with other, equally complex challenges looming on the horizon (health care, entitlement reform, climate change), the problem of democratic deliberation seems more pressing, not less.
If I had a solution to this dilemma, I probably wouldn’t be writing overlong blog posts. But I will offer one modest suggestion: In the wake of “Climategate” and a bank bailout dominated by financial insiders, the integrity and transparency of expert deliberation is more important than ever. On many issues, I am more than willing to defer to informed opinion. The pettiness revealed in the leaked climate emails and the borderline dishonesty of Bernanke and Paulsen in the midst of the economic crisis, however, makes it more difficult than ever to trust our governing institutions. I don’t want to rely solely on “common sense,” but given the choice, I’ll take my own intuitions over self-interested insiderism any day.