Pundits who rail at the credulity of the masses risk flaunting their own. Syndicated columnist Jonah Goldberg writes with admiration in Thursday’s Chicago Tribune of The Myth of the Rational Voter, a new book by economist Bryan Caplan. Says Goldberg: “To suggest that maybe some people just shouldn’t vote is considered the height of un-Americanism. . . . Consider the hoary cliche attributed to Democratic New York Gov. Alfred Smith in 1928: ‘All the ills of democracy can be cured by more democracy.’ As Caplan notes, this means that no evidence of any nature can ever, under any circumstances, be held against democracy.”
Because Goldberg read Caplan carelessly (or was done in by an editor), he misdates a comment usually attributed to a speech Smith gave in Albany in 1933. It’s in Goldberg’s interest (and Caplan’s) to dismiss the comment as naive or demagogic. But consider the times (1933, not 1928). The U.S. and the world were four years into the Depression. Mussolini was entrenched in Italy, Hitler had just become chancellor of Germany, and everywhere you looked there was someone dismissing democracy as your grandfather’s government and offering himself as the no-nonsense alternative. It was a pretty important time to speak up for democracy, though Smith, who’d been buried in his 1928 presidential race in large part because of the large anti-Catholic, pro-Prohibition vote against him, isn’t likely to have had any illusions about it. But Goldberg’s crack about the “height of un-Americanism” would have struck him as madness. In 1933, women throughout the U.S. had had the vote for only 13 years; senators had been directly elected for 20; millions of blacks in the south still had no vote at all. Once the conversation gets down to specifics, few of the Americans whose illusions Goldberg and Caplan think they’re puncturing actually hold the idea of a universal franchise sacred. It’s always been “sacred for me and good for my friends, and if you don’t like my candidate I hope your cellar floods and you stay home election day waiting for the plumber.”
In another part of the passage Goldberg is drawing from Caplan says: “In polite company, you can make fun of the worshippers of Zeus, but not Christians or Jews. Similarly, it is socially acceptable to make fun of market fundamentalism, but not democratic fundamentalism, because market fundamentalists are scarce, and democratic fundamentalists are all around us.” In the long, twisting, vaguely upward bound history of the human race, what happens in “polite company” doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. Goldberg and Caplan know that, of course, just as they know that there are plenty of rough-and-ready but responsible forums where it’s perfectly safe to present evidence against democracy–or, for that matter, against God. I’m sure they also know that millions of Americans who trudge faithfully to the polls aren’t a bit upset that millions of other Americans who are, in their view, less informed, less clearheaded, and less patriotic, don’t. I’ve heard dutiful voters admit as much in–come to think of it–polite company.
I haven’t read Caplan’s book, but Goldberg’s directed his readers to a piece of it that seems remarkably simpleminded. That describes the column too. Goldberg has learned the pundit’s trick of magnifying his iconoclasm by forgetting half of what he knows.