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Captain Fantastic meets Democratic Politics



Authors as Published

Two items caught my attention this week. First, GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has lately taken to promising Americans that were he elected President, he would shortly ensure $2.50 per gallon gasoline prices and that the incumbent could certainly do so were he not so unwilling to drill for oil in the United States. The implication of the Gingrich rhetoric is that President Obama is too weak and too willing to protect flora and fauna to deliver economical gasoline. Second, The Economist, the excellent English newsweekly that features a column on US politics it calls Lexington, devoted that entire space this week to how the President should respond to rising retail gasoline prices, but in that piece suggested clearly that Gingrich’s charge amounted to a “cockamamie claim.”

The Economist statement was striking because the newsmagazine’s author well understood that President Obama could not control gasoline prices, but the article nevertheless argued the President must manifest concern (which he did indeed do in a four-state swing this week in which he argued for an “All of the Above “ strategy to address the nation’s energy needs) or the GOP would successfully use the issue as a battering ram against him. However absurd his stance to analysts and however counterintuitive it may be to hear a supposed conservative and ardent anti-government activist make such claims for government authority, Gingrich apparently believes, as did The Economist writer, that millions of Americans imagine that the President can control such global market activities and more. Apparently it does not do to point to rising demand for oil in China and other developing economies and to market trader jitters over the implications of the ongoing fracas with Iran as reasons for the current price spike. A President or would-be president is expected to control for such concerns and somehow magically make them go away. And if one is not seen to be sufficiently wizard-like, or a veritable superhero, then watch out; Americans may turn on you in droves.

I cannot be the only observer wondering at this turn. It appears to rest in absolutely unreasonable claims on the President to do that which his office cannot. This strikes me as problematic for democracy. Indeed, what is striking about The Economist’s piece is that it spoke clearly to the folly of GOP claims (Yes, Romney is making similar arguments), but then went on to say that the President would be hurt by this turn (indeed, is being hurt in public opinion polls) without so much as noting the absurdity of the claims being made by the public.

One traditional criticism of democracy is that unless citizens discipline themselves and assure deliberative decision processes, democracies will surely make demands and choices that will lead to their own undoing. We appear now to be developing just such a politics. Individual Americans are apparently imagining that the President can control global oil prices as he might wish and are willing to demand that if he does not do so, they will petulantly turn to someone who claims he or she can. No matter that both the originating claim and the candidate’s rhetoric are utterly unreasonable, the voter is the arbiter and, because so, may demand the unreasonable. This is a not a debate about energy policy, but a fanciful claim imposed by an electorate unwilling to attend to reality and instead demanding the fantastical. This way leads not only to fallacious and potentially tyrannical claims, but finally, to folly. I am not sure how one bridles this sort of expectation once this dreadful genie has been loosed, but it does not and cannot augur well for the health of our politics. We appear increasingly to have a significant portion of our citizenry willing simply to make utterly unrealistic demands, rather than to debate and take prudent steps to address its manifold needs. This turn is decidedly unnerving.

Publication Date

March 25, 2012