A crisis of legitimacy

I had an interesting back-and-forth with my friend Conor Sen in email this morning. I'm usually the one who sends him links to David Brooks columns in the NYT, but this one he sent my way. My favorite part:

“What we’re seeing is the latest iteration of that populist tendency and the militant progressive reaction to it. We now have a populist news media that exaggerates the importance of the Van Jones and Acorn stories to prove the elites are decadent and un-American, and we have a progressive news media that exaggerates stories like the Joe Wilson shout and the opposition to the Obama schools speech to show that small-town folks are dumb wackos.

“One could argue that this country is on the verge of a crisis of legitimacy,” the economic blogger Arnold Kling writes. “The progressive elite is starting to dismiss rural white America as illegitimate, and vice versa.”

It’s not race. It’s another type of conflict, equally deep and old.”

My argument is that all of this is more about class than race. But this cleft represents a major threat to our democracy. It also resonates with me based on my current back and forth with Don on this blog...

The Brooks article dovetails neatly with the latest Time cover story on Glenn Beck. When I was in Barcelona FOX News was one of the only English channels on the TV, and I saw more of Beck's show than I ever had before. I found it fascinating and terrifying at the same time.

As I emailed to Conor, the erosion in trust in government has been going on for 50 years. The change is that now there are mainstream channels for its expression. The Time article got it right, it’s a long tail thing – before if you were a group of 2 million people you couldn’t find a channel for expression in mass media, because there were only 3 networks. Now if you get 2m people to tune into your cable show you’re on the cover of Time. It’s social fragmentation, pure and simple.

All these Hitler analogies are a big red flag that there’s no concrete, specific grievances behind many of these protests. It’s Godwin’s Law. If you have something substantive to say, you don’t need to resort to Hitler/Fascism/Communism. All these are scary bugaboos from a prior era, resuscitated as catch-all points of fearmongering. The Nazis and the Communists are so long dead and buried that there’s probably not enough left of them to spread on toast (as Larry Shue wrote in The Foreigner.)

In fact, anyone who could hold together a Fascist state in an era of Twitter, Facebook, and Justin.tv would have pulled off a miracle. We’re not talking about Iran and Afghanistan here… now you can’t even head down to Argentina for a weekend with your mistress without the whole blogosphere posting about it obsessively. The internet is the greatest tool for speaking truth to power that has ever been invented.

Conor said it reminded him of a line from Michael J Fox in "The American President": "They don't have a choice! Bob Rumson is the only one doing the talking! People want leadership, Mr. President, and in the absence of genuine leadership, they'll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They're so thirsty for it they'll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there's no water, they'll drink the sand."

Let's see if after Obama's media barrage this weekend there will be more of an alternative to Beck on the airwaves.

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