Our System is the Envy of the World

I came across this article by American Enterprise Institute president Arthur C. Brooks today, ‘Spreading The Wealth’ Isn’t Fair. I’m curious to know if people from outside of the United States agree with his conclusion —  “…our system is the envy of the world and should be a source of pride. Generation after generation, it has rewarded hard work and good values, education and street smarts. It has offered the world’s most disadvantaged not government redistribution but a chance to earn their success. That is true fairness, American-style.”

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Propaganda and the Marketplace of Ideas

Depiction of the "pure Aryan" family, 1938

Last Monday our Lantos group went on an interesting and challenging tour of the Holocaust Memorial Museum’s special exhibit, State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda. The exhibit takes visitors through the evolution of Nazi propaganda and offers poignant examples of its use during the years leading up to and during the Second World War. A recurring question for me was: how should democratic societies, which cherish free speech, guard against the stifling effect that propaganda has on the marketplace of ideas? Should propaganda be banned outright?

Interestingly enough, the images that were the most thought provoking for me were the ones authored by American propagandists. Some of the first pictures that visitors encounter in the exhibit hail from the United States, during the time of the First World War, when propaganda was employed to vilify Germans and encourage Americans to purchase Liberty Bonds that financed the allied war effort. In retrospect, Hitler regarded Germany’s inability to effectively use propaganda, as the American’s had done, as a primary cause of his country’s defeat during the First World War. The example of American propaganda convinced him of its power and the role it might play in the winning the war of ideas waged in Germany during the tumultuous years following the Treaty of Versailles. Ultimately, Nazi propaganda successfully out-competed the political platforms of other parties in Germany, gained a monopoly over the marketplace of ideas, and then halted the free flow of ideas completely.

As an American, my first thought was: should Americans be troubled that their country’s effective use of propaganda inspired Hitler to implement it is a tool of the Nazi party? Yikes! We touched on this topic during our group discussion and looked at instances in which propaganda has been used for good and for ill — on the bright side: public health campaigns have used propaganda-like materials to dissuade kids from using drugs or to promote the use of contraceptives in places with high HIV/AIDS prevalence rates. On the dark side: propaganda has been used to dehumanize others and instigate mass violence.

The entire exhibit brought me back to the question of free speech. In light of its risks, should we allow propaganda to be used at all? Is it possible to regulate propaganda in a democratic society that upholds the right to fee speech? This is an enormously challenging question and one that I suspect our Lantos group will continue to discuss over the next couple of months. From my vantage point, a group’s propaganda becomes dangerous when it tries to create a monopoly in the marketplace of ideas. Once propaganda eliminates the ability of other ideas to compete, the gates are opened wide for dangerous ideologies to take root and metastasize. Ultimately, a free marketplace of ideas is our greatest defense against the pernicious effects of propaganda, even though it paradoxically defends propaganda’s right to exist. That’s my two cents. In any case, the State of Deception exhibit is thought provoking and is definitely worth checking out.

On a side note: one of the final images in the exhibit is a portrait of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which was included to show a contemporary political figure who may one day face prosecution before an international tribunal, similar to the Nuremburg trials. The consensus in our group was that featuring his picture distracted from the exhibit’s overall theme and purpose.

— David Peyton

How broken is the government that is proclaimed to be broken?

In an early attempt to understand some of the impressions of the first two weeks of the fellowship, I want to focus on an apparent contradiction that has struck me: how can it be that Americans seem to be so political, while at the same time have such aversion to their politicians and their political system?

In my eyes, the United States is arguably the most democratic society in the world. Every six years, each of the fifty states sends two senators to Washington. Every two years, the 435 seats in the House of Representatives, each directly representing approximately 650.000 constituents, are up for election. Although I am probably looking with Washington biased eyes, it seems that American society is breathing with politics. I have already seen pro-life marchers come to Washington to speak to their members of Congress, voters petition their representatives about issues ranging from animal cruelty to the right to bear arms and lobbyists for every possible kind of social group walking the corridors of the House Office Buildings. Almost everything that concerns political activity in Washington is publicly accessible: constituents can meet their representatives, look up the status of bills and voting records, and investigate flight tickets and office supply expenses. Politics is also omnipresent in the media: A quick round of TV zapping leads you to discussions on BBC, CNN, Fox News, C-Span, a channel entirely dedicated to broadcasting politics 24/7, and a whole range of politically engaged talk-tv and comedy, from the right-wing Bill O’Reilly on Fox News to left-wing Rachel Maddow on MSNBC.

At the same time, however, there is a strong and deeply rooted suspicion among Americans towards government and politics, which has a clear, quantifiable presence: I was struck when reading about a famous opinion poll in 2000, in which the ethical standards of politicians received a lower rating than those of bankers, journalists, lawyers and professionals in fifteen other fields. In fact, only prostitutes got a lower score. A recent Gallup poll shows that the United States Congress receives an approval rating of approximately 25%, indicating that a clear majority of the American people feel unhappy about the work of Congress that they have sent off to represent them in Washington. Moreover, overall voter turnouts are generally much lower than in most European countries.

What makes the paradox even more puzzling is that unlike their bad reputation, a large majority of representatives are actually reelected time and again. While in my own country, the Netherlands, having served for two 4-year terms already gives ‘seniority’ status, in the United States Congress it is no exception to serve for a couple of decades. Currently, there are ten members of Congress who have even served for more than 35 years. It was, therefore, maybe not such a big surprise to learn that when pollsters, in a follow up question on the approval rate of Congress, ask voters how they think about the work of their own representative, the answers are often much more positive.

I did not have to dig deep into academic literature or thoroughly analyse my impressions. In fact, worries about ‘political sclerosis’ and ‘broken government’ are widespread and even more widely discussed. A saying goes that the American political system is “designed by geniuses [the revered founding fathers] so it could be run by idiots [the current politicians]”. The statement might be rhetorical, but I guess that most people would agree that the process of policy making in Washington is slow and inefficient. More than being a powerful decision making institution, the Congress seems to be a marketplace of many local interests that Members have to sell if they want to serve their voters well (and thus be reelected), in the parallel process of legislative proposals having to go through the Senate and the House of Representatives a clear majority of proposals die.

Some say the system was meant this way, others argue that America needs reform if it wants to retain its position in the world. If Washington is a tax slurping monster that does more harm than good, or a bringer of direly needed health reform, probably remains to be argued for a long time. The partisan politics that result from this disagreement are all over the place and, for a society that seems so political in nature, is a source of widespread and often entertaining discussion, but it must also be very frustrating. Is American government really broken? With a vocal Tea Party Movement, a President that keeps raising the stakes for health care reform and a fragile economy, I am curious to see what the coming months are going to bring and hoping to get a little bit closer to the answer.

Brookings data on America

0228 Brookings ‘How We Are Doing Index’

Congressman Anthony Weiner criticizes Republican Party on Healthcare

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Congressman Manzullo questions Secretary of State Clinton during Foreign Affairs Hearing

Barack Obama at GOP convention