Among the Intellectualoids

Accountability and Its Discontents

The chattering class chafes at the electorate's insistence on actual results.

By 9.16.10

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During the past several weeks, as the shadow of the midterms has loomed darker and darker over congressional Democrats, the commentary of progressive pundits has become noticeably querulous. In response to a spate of surveys showing widespread voter dissatisfaction with the President and his partners on Capitol Hill, the op-ed writers and bloggers of the New York Times, Washington Post, and a variety of lesser liberal outlets have used their columns and posts to vent frustration with the electorate's inability to see that the current regime has been a success. Why, they ask, is the public not grateful for the "historic" health reform bill, the stimulus package and Wall Street reform? What, they demand to know, are the voters not getting?

Given a chance to respond to this query, most voters would probably provide a one-word answer: "results." The Democrats simply haven't produced. Their signature legislative "achievement," the ironically named Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, is actually exacerbating the problems it was ostensibly passed to solve. Meanwhile, unemployment has doubled since the Democrats recaptured Congress and the federal deficit has skyrocketed at a truly alarming rate. That such high-profile failures have produced disapprobation for congressional Democrats and their eloquent accomplice in the White House should not be surprising, but the phenomenon seems to have shocked and angered many progressive pundits.

Jonathan Alter's recent cri du coeur in Newsweek is typical of the resultant outbursts: "[N]o good deed goes unpunished, and the GOP seems headed for a takeover of the House of Representatives in November." Alter is piqued and perplexed by the public's refusal to give credit where he thinks credit is due. The president, he huffs, "prevented another Great Depression" while providing "Wall Street reform added to health care." That most of the voters already had health care and see no evidence that any Democrat policy has improved the economy, is evidently lost on Alter. In the end, he concludes that the problem is "the cognitive dissonance of the American voter."

Alter's conclusion that the voters are suffering from some kind of psychological malfunction is echoed throughout the progressive commentariat. His Newsweek colleague, Eleanor Clift, avers that "The heightened role for government in the economy and health care has triggered mass psychosis among voters." At the Huffington Post, Carla Seaquist writes that voter anger has become "more volatile and incoherent the more it untethers from reality" and that it has "spawned a kind of madness." Over at the New York Times, Paul Krugman describes voter disenchantment as a kind of recurring insanity: "Anyone who remembered the 1990s could have predicted something like the current political craziness."

Not all liberal commentators accept the "crazy voter" theory, of course. Some write off public discontent to mere stupidity, and others think it's all about racism. The only explanation that seems not to have occurred to them is that the Democrats have underperformed. Why? The most generous answer is related to a distinction that Thomas Sowell makes between intellectuals and those responsible for the major advances of the 20th century. The latter, he points out, "produced a tangible product or service and they were judged by whether those products and services worked." The former "are people whose end products are intangible ideas, and they are usually judged by whether those ideas sound good to other intellectuals or resonate with the public."

A similar distinction can be made between progressive journalists and voters. The typical voter is likely to be someone whose livelihood depends on his ability to provide employers and customers with some useful product or service. Such people will naturally judge politicians "successful" only if their policies improve the lot of Americans in some tangible way. The success of a liberal pundit, on the other hand, depends primarily on his ability to find favor with other liberal pundits and validate the progressive belief system of his readers. Such people will tend to value the tangible results achieved by a politician less than his general eloquence and ideological bent.

This interpretation gives Clift, Krugman, et al. the benefit of the doubt, of course. It assumes that they miss the point of voter discontent for relatively innocuous reasons of temperament. A more cynical view is that they are just partisan hacks frustrated by their inability to hoodwink the public -- yet again -- about the true character of the current Democrat regime. There is a good deal of evidence to support this view, including the Journolist scandal. If most progressive pundits are honest, why did so many participate in what was obviously a conspiracy to mislead the public? Why didn't more of them denounce the obvious collusion? Why does Ezra Klein, the founder of that infamous listserv, remain a rising star at the Washington Post?

In the world occupied by most Americans, where people are held accountable for their actions, Klein would have been fired for such a brazen ethical breach. In fact, were he employed in banking, securities or health care, the kind of collusion he engaged in with his Journolist accomplices would have landed him in the penitentiary. But Klein has not been held accountable, and perhaps therein lays the real explanation for progressive frustration with the voters. Maybe Clift, Krugman, Klein, and the rest of the progressive commentariat believe they and the politicians they support are above such quotidian concerns. Maybe they believe accountability and results are only for the hoi polloi.

This explanation certainly fits the facts. The progressive pundits tell us that the Democrats on Capitol Hill and in the White House have been, in the words of Time's Mark Halperin, a "huge success." They have told us that we should be grateful for the "landmark" legislation passed by Congress and signed by the President. Yet we still insist on complaining because these "historic" bills have produced no discernible improvement in our lives. We still keep whining about health care costs, unemployment and the deficit. In their calmer moments, they probably don't really think we're crazy, or stupid or even racist, when we insist that the Democrats produce results. They probably believe we're being presumptuous.

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About the Author

David Catron is a health care revenue cycle expert who has spent more than twenty years working for and consulting with hospitals and medical practices. He has an MBA from the University of Georgia and blogs at Health Care BS.