Nothing is more common today than for politicians and pundits to lament the influence of “special interests” on our political system. From Pat Buchanan to John McCain and Bill Bradley, our would-be leaders tell us we must “take back” the nation’s political institutions from the partisan think tanks and lobbyists that increasingly set the terms of debate “inside the Beltway.” Once we do, the bonds of gridlock will be broken, the government will become more responsive to the will of “the people,” and partisanship will magically give way to the disinterested pursuit of the common good.
John Judis’s The Paradox of American Democracy: Elites, Special Interests, and the Betrayal of the Public Trust is the latest (though far from the best) book to make this familiar argument. The novelty of Judis’s position rests on his acknowledgement that elites play an important, even essential role in political life.
Entrepreneurs, the leaders of philanthropic organizations, and intellectuals can exercise a positive influence on the country by placing the common good above self-interest, as Judis claims they did during the Progressive era, the New Deal, and the 1960s. Or they can wreak havoc, as he asserts they are doing today, by pursuing a short-sighted and selfish agenda at the expense of the common good. But elites cannot be eliminated altogether. Judis thus differs from many of today’s populists who see elitism as such as the source of our problems.
Rather than advocating the overthrow of today’s elites, then, Judis’s book seeks to teach them about the disinterested outlook that supposedly dominated the elites of an earlier era—and to trace our fall away from that outlook—all in the hopes of inspiring its rebirth in the here and now. The story he tells is a dreary one, and not just because he tends to write flat, colorless prose. For Judis, the political history of 20th century America is a story of decline.
Whereas early in the 20th century men like Robert Brookings, Woodrow Wilson, Louis Brandeis, Herbert Croly, Walter Lippmann, and John Dewey furthered the common good of the nation by supporting the growth of social programs to help the disadvantaged, in the last 30 years a new generation of elites has relinquished its civic duty in favor of pushing for policies that benefit itself at the expense of the American people as a whole.
Judis traces this shift away from virtue to the early 1970s, when corporate leaders like GE’s Fred Borch and Alcoa’s John Harper, intellectuals like Irving Kristol and Lewis D. Powell, and philanthropic organizations like the Sarah Scaife Foundation and the John M. Olin Foundation conspired to overthrow the old ideal of disinterestedness by funding explicitly partisan think tanks and lobbyists whose sole purpose was to convince Congress to side with business interests against the common good. The rest is, as they say, history. According to Judis’s analysis, American politics has become “dysfunctional” over the past three decades because it has come to be “dominated by lobbyists and irresponsible elites backed by conservative Republicans.”
As this statement makes plain, Judis is not really opposed to think tanks and lobbyists as such so much as he is hostile to the conservatism of the think tanks and lobbyists that currently exercise influence in Washington (though it must be said that he vastly overstates that influence).
Thus despite his praise of “disinterestedness,” Judis is just another liberal who would like to see the policy advances of conservatism over the past 30 years rolled back and replaced by a new progressive political agenda. In Judis’s ideal world, the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation would be run out of town on a rail by a revitalized Brookings Institution, and concerns about the size and efficiency of government would be supplanted by the drive to institute new social programs to benefit the “working class” and others supposedly left behind by the economic boom of the past decade.
Given these priorities, one might expect Judis to conclude his book with a defense of liberalism against its many critics—a defense, for example, of the Great Society social programs that so many empirical studies (funded by the organizations he loathes) have shown to make life worse for the very people they were enacted to help. But he does no such thing. For as we have seen, Judis defends the liberal-minded elites not for their liberalism, but rather for their non-partisan pursuit of the common good. So, for instance, supporting the health care reform plan of President Clinton’s first term is an act of disinterested civic virtue for Judis, whereas standing against it is an example of partisan selfishness.
While this manner of argumentation might succeed at rallying the troops at a Democratic Party fundraiser, it will strike others as being thoroughly disingenuous. Only the most committed partisan sees his own position on issues of public policy as corresponding unproblematically to the common good and dismisses dissenters on account of their self-evident moral failings.
Of course there is nothing wrong with commitment to one’s causes. Yet we should expect more from what is ostensibly a work of political analysis—especially one that holds up disinterestedness as the highest political ideal.
Damon Linker teaches political theory at Brigham Young University.