Plato distinguished between “simple ignorance” — the mere lack of information — and “double ignorance” — the absence of knowledge coupled with the delusion of having genuine knowledge.
I can’t recall a time since the dark days of McCarthy that the country has been more plagued by “double ignorance” made even worse by the passive response of people who know better. “Double ignorance” produces a political strategy that relies on demagoguery. And to no surprise, demagoguery has served as the unofficial strategy of the Republicans and their surrogates ever since the day after the 2008 presidential election.
Some examples: “death panels,” “birthers,” ACORN distortions, charges of communism/ socialism and, just a couple of weeks back, Rush Limbaugh yammering away that the president is intentionally destroying the American economy to get even for slavery. Not to be out-crazied, Fox News then almost destroyed USDA employee Shirley Sherrod, accusing her of showing favoritism to blacks when, in fact, she had urged just the opposite: help for struggling whites.
As one observer recently put it, the far right has always had more than its share of wing nuts, but, until recently, it didn’t have its own television network. And people believe this stuff. That’s why the Aileses, Roves, Murdochs and Limbaughs can stay in business.
“One of the biggest changes in politics in my lifetime,” remarked Bill Moyers, “is that the delusional is no longer marginal. It has come in from the fringe, to sit in the seat of power in the Oval Office and in Congress. For the first time in our history, ideology and theology hold a monopoly of power in Washington, D.C.”
Which brings us back to the passive response to our double ignorance problem. Democrats seem to sit there just as Mike Dukakis did, thinking nobody would take seriously that ridiculous Willy Horton TV ad. Then came the ever-so-polite Democratic vote-counters during the Florida recount, barraged as they were by the Republican operatives imported from GOP offices in D.C. Then there was John Kerry, four years later, laughing off the Swift Boaters’ attack.
And now comes Barack Obama, the Chicago community organizer who should know better. But he and his brain-trust seem wedded to the strategy of going into these rumbles armed only with copy of Emily Post.
As for the public, which can’t seem to separate truth from lies? Walter Lippmann, whose 1923 book Public Opinion remains the standard on the subject, tells us the public can do no more than create a “pseudo-reality” conforming to how it would like things to turn out. Historian Arthur Schlesinger, commenting on Lippmann, wrote that “the private citizen … was like a deaf spectator in the back row: He does not know what’s happening, why it is happening, what ought to happen; he lives in a world which he cannot see, does not understand and is unable to direct.”
The public, Lippmann argues, will always struggle to raise double ignorance to the civically acceptable level of simple ignorance. As a result, writes Schlesinger, “all it could do (is) intervene in times of crisis to support one set of individuals or proposals against another.” In its highest ideal, wrote Lippmann, “public opinion will defend those who are prepared to act on their reason against the interrupting forces of those who merely assert will.”
The press is expected to move politics in the direction of reason. It is failing. Wing-nut networks aside, much blame can be laid at the doorstep of the “mainstream” media. Here you have Michelle Cottle, a serious journalist writing a column for the New Republic titled “Media Maven,” elevating Sarah Palin to celebrity candidate and PR genius — without a word about how truly catastrophic a Palin presidency could be. Palin proudly wraps herself in double ignorance, but isn’t denounced for doing so. Emily Post again — let’s be polite. After all, not even the hoi polloi really believe this woman.
Not only is this condescending, it is dangerous.
In the fall of 1948, lagging far behind in the polls, Harry Truman, on his way home, stopped off in St. Louis for his final campaign speech. He delivered a classic. We recall his most famous line, “Any farmer who votes … Republican … ought to have his head examined.” That’s the kind of barn-burning response we need to hear. Instead we are getting tepid bromides about “bipartisanship” and “teaching moments.”
Successful presidents control the national narrative, the stories that influence public opinion. Richard Neustadt had it right: Presidential power is the power to persuade, and the power to persuade is derived from the preferred stories we tell about ourselves. Like him or not, Ronald Reagan controlled the narrative and that’s why he had, for a time, “the power to persuade.”
It isn’t that the public is rejecting Obama’s policies. Rather, it is that Obama isn’t viewed as being larger than the sum of his policies. In contrast, Reagan was viewed as being larger than the sum of his policies even though his rhetoric and policies often weren’t complementary. The public was fixated and enthralled by the narrative Reagan had written.
The good news for Obama is that his opposition has neither narrative nor policies, only demagoguery. To reclaim the narrative he had, Obama must toss out Emily Post and return to his community organizing roots — go back to Saul Alinsky, who, trust me, would never urge “bipartisanship” and “teaching moments.” Not in a nice way, not ever.