The digital ink was scarcely dry on my last post when a controversy erupted to illustrate its main point. I wrote that a growing distance between rulers and ruled lay at the heart of the crisis of liberal democracy. Moments later, in a series of web videos, Jonathan Gruber delivered a virtuoso performance in the pathology of political distance.
Gruber is an economist at MIT beclouded with honors and titles: a sort of pan-dimensional, hyper-intelligent being whose Big Thought was intellectual authorship of portions of President Obama’s 2010 health care law. To anyone willing to listen, Professor Gruber ever since has insisted that passage of the law was possible only by means of the noble lie.
“The bill was written in a tortured way to make sure CBO did not score the mandate as taxes. If CBO scored the mandate as taxes, the bill dies. . . In terms of risk rated subsidies, if you had a bill which said that healthy people are going to pay in – you made explicit, healthy people pay in and sick people get money, it would not have passed.”
The professor went on:
“Lack of transparency is a huge political advantage. And basically, call it the stupidity of the American voter or whatever, but basically that was really critical to getting the thing to pass. Look, I wish…that we could make it all transparent, but I’d rather have this law than not.”
This wasn’t said in a shuttered smoke-filled room, to a cabal of shadowy political manipulators. Nor was it a verbal outburst fueled by emotion or inebriation: a “gaffe.” Here and elsewhere, Gruber offered his considered reflections at open academic conferences, where they were received as such, without fuss.
The tenor and substance of Gruber’s argument is always the same. Democracy, he regrets, isn’t up to the job. The gap between the brilliant shepherds who rule the nation and the simple-minded sheep they must lead to pasture can be bridged only with reassuring lies. To enact a necessary law, the public had to be deceived.
His audiences responded to such utterances in the same manner, too: with nods of understanding and the occasional chuckle of mild amusement. In an age of infinite offense-taking, it seems nobody felt offended by the trashing of American democracy.
That changed when videos of his talks went viral. In the great angry noise that ensued, however, I have yet to hear anyone ask the most pertinent question: how is this possible? Jonathan Gruber isn’t a revolutionary or a neo-Nazi. He’s a mainstream academic who means well for his country. His audiences probably share the same description. How can it be that they assume, collectively, without debate, the stupidity of the public, the failure of the democratic process, and the need for those in power to rule by trickery?
Conservatives like Charles Krauthammer find the explanation in “the arrogance of an academic liberalism that rules in the name of a citizenry it mocks, disdains and deliberately, contemptuously deceives.” The charge has some merit. Those who aspire to the title should ask how an attitude of scorn for public opinion and representative democracy and honest dealing can be construed as “progressive.”
Barack Obama’s blithe dismissal of the legitimacy of the midterm elections fits snuggly into this pattern of illiberal liberalism.
But it was President Bush, compassionate conservative, who erected a police apparatus that treats ordinary Americans like enemies of the state in the public places of their own land. There can hardly be greater disdain than that.
For Bush, it was security, for Obama, welfare: the practical effect, surely intended, was a desperate clinging by both to the protective distance between power and the public.
Distance explains Professor Gruber and his untoward proclamations. Gruber resides at the top of the pyramid of the expert class, where policy wonks schmooze with political players. The worldview from the heights is more 1930s than new millennium. The illusion of invisibility from the public persists: distance makes blind. The professor thought he was speaking strictly entre nous, among members of his club.
But why did he dwell on the stupidity of the public? Well, the public doesn’t have all of his diplomas. It doesn’t speak to presidents. It doesn’t participate in legislation. The public lacks the tribal tokens and credentials that buttress Gruber’s identity as an expert, and make him feel interesting and important. That one could be smart and lack those never enters his mind for an instant.
Gruber – like Obama and Bush, and all government elites – peers at the public from the wrong end of a telescope, until it resembles a tiny but multitudinous insect, a swarm of fire ants on the move, driven by primitive urges, but deprived of reasoning capacity. The public is where terrorists and white supremacists and obesity come from. The job of government is to tame this beast. The awkwardness of the democratic process, from the elites’ perspective, is that it demands that noble lie.
The tragedy of democracy, from a historical perspective, is that the public is a very different creature than the elites imagine. The public is far from blind: it body-scans the elites right back on digital, searchable formats. With a click of my laptop, for example, I can see Jonathan Gruber boast about lying to the voters, again and again. He is deluded in his invisibility but exposed in his fraud.
The trouble with the noble lie is that it’s tough to make a case for nobility once the lie has been found out.
Trust between rulers and ruled functions much like Humpty Dumpty: it can’t be put together again. That is where we are today. The lies are all found out. The public mistrusts every word and act that comes from government – and the hyper-intelligent Professor Gruber’s revelations confirm that it has good reason to do so.