The American Crash

Should we blame our supposedly "feckless" political class for the crisis? The editorial writers at the Wall Street Journal believe that the Beltway class are so incompetent that they can't even make sausage:

America has survived a feckless political class in the past, and itwill again after this week. But Monday's crash and burn of the Paulson plan on Capitol Hill reveals a Washington elite that has earned every bit of the disdain that Americans have for it. This crowd can't even make sausage.

Using stock conservative language to criticize his own party, David Brooks, the house Republican at the Times, agrees. In "Revolt of the Nihilists", Brooks blinks at the lacunae at the center of American political culture. But instead of sausage, Brooks tells us, it's "authority" that our political leaders are failing to produce:

This generation of political leaders is confronting a similar situation, and, so far, they have failed utterly and catastrophically to project any sense of authority, to give the world any reason to believe that this country is being governed. Instead, by rejecting the rescue package on Monday, they have made the psychological climate much worse.

It's not just repentent conservatives like Brooks who are hungry for the sausage of authority. Robert Scoble, a left-liberal blogger of some popular repute, is also going through a nasty metamorphosis of his own. After confessing that he's turning into Andrew Keen (what a fate, eh?), uber-blogger Scoble acknowledges his own hunger for the authority of expertise:

I find I’m looking to experts and elites more and more, because the crap I’m seeing out of all of our mouths is just so, um, wrong. As my history teacher back in the 1980s used to say “the masses are asses.” This is shaking my belief system pretty thoroughly, because I actually do believe that a decentralized system is stronger than one with one guy or gal in the middle controlling everything. But for a decentralized system to work we have to 1. be smart and 2. believe in each other. Those two things are proving to me to be pretty trying right now.

The Journal describes the crisis as a "Beltway Crash".  But it's actually the American Crash. Brooks correctly accuses the Republican Congressional rump of confusing "talk radio with reality" and Scoble is right to yearn for the wisdom of the expert rather than the crowd. Yet this problem can't just be blamed on Rush Limbaugh or the Daily Koz. American media -- both new and old -- has successfully been confusing their message with reality for years. The blogs, reality tv, call-in radio, fake news shows, Madison Avenue -- they've all personalized reality so effectively that now Americans can't collectively see beyond themselves and their own immediate interests. In our unwillingness to accept the authority of experts like Paulson and Bernanke, we have become the collective Smoot-Hawleys of the 21st century. And the casualty of this collective nihilism is the sausage of authority. Congress revolted against the bail-out because the American voter revolted against it. The scarcer authority becomes, the less anyone wants to bail anyone else out. Our culture of mutual suspicion means that we are all in this for ourselves now. And confidence -- which is another word for mutual trust -- can't be restored if nobody believes anyone else anymore.

Was it only in 2006 that Time made YOU the person of the year? Two long years later, it is "us" -- you and me -- who have become the problem rather than the solution. As NPR's Dick Meyer argued in a wise essay last week, our entire culture has become a "predator class" preying on itself:

All this tells me we are wrong to scapegoat the I-bankers, hedge fund wizards and baby billionaires. We are right to worry far more broadly. Indeed, there is a predator class, but it is preying on a culture that is wounded and weak. That is our culture today; that is us. Sorry.

Richard Cohen wrote in yesterday's Post that the breakdown of economic confidence results in desperate people embracing the ersatz authority of fascists like Huey Long and Father Charles Coughlin. Cohen is indeed right to remind us that "hard times are hard on truth." And given the hard time that truth has had in the prosperous America of the last twenty five years, I shudder to imagine its fate in an America of hard times.