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What I'm reading, and more

July 27th, 2003

The Paradox of American Democracy: Elites, Special Interests, and the Betrayal of Public Trust by John Judis. This book was published in 2000, but the analysis is still relevant. What’s interesting, particularly from an Australian perspective, is that the book is not, as might be expected, a diatribe against elites and interest groups. Judis argues that the American system relies on participation by interest groups representing real constituencies and by disinterested elite groups – his models are the Brookings Institution and the Committee on Economic Development.

But now, Judis says, most interest groups have no real members, and are merely “letterhead groups” relying either on business lobbies or direct mail appeals for their funding, while the elites have capitulated to business. The result is a corrupt, money-driven system of politics.

The bad guys in the book are the lobbying industry (“K Street”, in the intra-Beltway jargon) and members of the elite who act as mouthpieces for partisan interests – the prime individual example is Henry Kissinger, and the main institutional villain is the American Enterprise Institute. Having never looked into the history of the Institute, I’ve accepted Brad de Long’s judgement that it was once a reputable, if conservatively-inclined outfit. By Judis’ account, though, it was always a front group for partisan conservatives, and so, its recent activities (discussed here, here and here) can be seen merely as revealing its true colours.

Judis’ analysis is quite US-specific, but it is still helpful in trying to work out an appropriate response to the Australian debate over “elites” most of which is at a very low level.

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  1. Steve Edwards
    July 28th, 2003 at 00:20 | #1

    You cannot compare Australian and American democracy. Australian democracy, for one, has more parties at a national level. Participation in political parties is lower in Australia as we don’t have primaries. However, voting rates are around 90%. Thus sectional interests have a harder time “buying votes” and “getting people out to vote” when everyone votes anyway. Also there is no party discipline, and local party machines matter in America.

    Australia’s discussion of “elites” is probably different from America’s. The theory of Australian “elites” is closely related to public choice theory, and is mainly confined to elites in the public sector, particularly the universities. “Elite” is a weapon in cultural discourse, not economic discourse. It is associated with particular values, rather than necessary prominence or actual political power, which further distinguishes Australia’s public discourse.

  2. Chris Joye
    July 28th, 2003 at 01:34 | #2

    Hi John,

    Whilst we are on the subject of what you are reading, can I make one quick recommendation—The Clinton Wars, by Sidney Blumenthal. Whilst undeniably sympathetic, Blumenthal does supply some masterful insights. On an unrelated note, I actually spent over an hour alone with Henry Kissinger in New York several weeks ago. I must admit that it was an interesting experience, and not in any way consistent with my priors.

    Kind regards,
    Chris

  3. Rex
    July 28th, 2003 at 09:41 | #3

    Aren’t you over intellectualising this ‘elites’ thing.

    It is just a word used by the Howard Government to isolate anybody who doesn’t agree with them. It is intended to make a connection with the ‘battlers’. But I wouldn’t get hung up on it.

    As a word ‘elite’ is a pretty weak insult, I’m amazed that the left allow themselves to be irritated by it.

    Politics is all about language and rhetoric. The oppositions groups are failing because they have failed to develop the correct language.

    Rex

  4. John
    July 28th, 2003 at 09:58 | #4

    Rex, I agree with you that on how the Howard government uses the word, but I think you’ve mistakenly assumed that my concerns are primarily a reaction to this. I’ll try to clarify my views in due course.

  5. July 28th, 2003 at 10:28 | #5

    Lobbying has corrupted politics alright, but it crosses both sides of the ideological fence.

    THe Right has certainly capitalised on buisness-based class-politics. Class-division is a curse.
    See Welcome to the Machine
    But the Left has also exploited ethnic-based race-politics. Multiculturalism is a curse. See The Emerging Democratic Majority Gets Establishment Attention.

    The politics of a Good Society must aim to mimimise both socio-economic and bio-cultural seperatism.

  6. Homer Paxton
    July 28th, 2003 at 14:19 | #6

    I just like the irony of elites mouthing off about elites. Mind you in cases like Ackerman, Bolt, Adams etc it is rather lite rather than elite!

  7. July 28th, 2003 at 22:48 | #7

    Sure, from the point of view of a social scientist, the debate between elites over elites is ludicrous. From the perspective of contemporary political history, however, it goes directly to the crux of today’s ideological conflicts … and, more explictly, the neo-conservative strategy … which is precisely to divide the concept of liberal-democracy in two. In this context, ‘elites’ is the code-word for liberalism … and I don’t just mean the US-specific meaning of ‘liberalism’ … which the neocons aim to separate from democracy (which they have embraced). I’ve been reading around this topic, and hope to do some posts over at Troppo in due course. For now, I leave you with a quote from the chief contemporary ideological descendent of Leo Strauss, Irving Kristol, the father of the neo-cons in the Bush Admin and the real father of William Kristol. In explaining the main aspects of the new direction, Kristol writes:

    First in time, though certainly not in order of political significance, was the emergence of an intellectual trend that later came to be called “neoconservatism”. This current of thought, in which I was deeply involved, differred in one crucial respect from its conservative predecessors. Its chosen enemy was contemporary liberalism.

    - Kristol, Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea (pp. 378-9)

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