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"Great leader democracy": most Americans are disinclined to think deeply about the tyrannical actions of government, but James Bovard's Attention Deficit Democracy will open their eyes.

Attention Deficit Democracy, by James Bovard, New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005, 291 pages, hardcover, $26.95. For ordering information, see the ad on page four.

Every ruling elite covets a subject population who will trust, rather than think. This is emphatically true of our own government, observes investigative author James Bovard in his bracing new book. Surrounded by the trappings of prosperity (albeit, in most instances, purchased on credit) and marinated in rhetoric equating democracy with freedom, most Americans are disinclined to think deeply about the actions of the government that rules them. This paralyzing complacency, dangerous in the best of times, is potentially fatal in the post-9/11 era.

During this era, complacency has been punctuated with engineered outbursts of politically useful fear. Describing the Bush administration's transparent use of terrorist threat warnings to control the tenor and tempo of the 2004 presidential campaign, Bovard writes: "Each time the feds issued a new warning of a terrorist threat after 9/11, the president's approval rating rose by an average of almost 3 percent. As long as enough people can be frightened, then all people can be ruled. Politicians cow people on election day in order to corral them afterward."

The message disseminated by the president and his partisans, writes Bovard, was that "blind obedience provides the equivalent of body armor for the entire nation." And this message worked to get Bush reelected.

In an interview with a friendly biographer, President Bush recently admitted that his reelection owed much to an election eve message from Osama bin Laden that seemed to reinforce the incumbent's credentials as a protector. The Bush reelection campaign treated the 2004 presidential election as a simple implied transaction: "Support me, and you won't get killed." After he was reelected, President Bush was asked if he was responsible for any wrongdoing. He responded that the election was an "accountability moment" and that our citizenry had absolved him of any wrongdoing, and invested him with "political capital" to do as he sees fit.

Bovard refers to this vision of government--in which a popularly elected executive sees himself as the embodiment of the General Will, and accountable only to himself and "The People"--as "Great Leader Democracy."

Democratic tyranny, Bovard points out, requires the canny manipulation of two impulses: Trust and fear. He also noted that Montesquieu, an 18th-century French baron, "identified fear as the principle of despotic governments ... [stressing that] 'fear ought to be the only prevailing sentiment' in such regimes," in his The Spirit of the Laws, which greatly influenced the thinking of America's Founding Fathers. John Adams offered a similar warning in his 1776 Thoughts on Government: "Fear is the foundation of most governments; but it is so sordid and brutal a passion, and renders men in whose breasts it predominates so stupid and miserable, that Americans will not be likely to approve of any political institution which is founded on it."

It is the tendency of a democracy to cultivate fear toward everything other than the government itself, which is supposedly entitled to the people's unqualified trust. But as Thomas Jefferson warned, and Bovard reiterates, trust is always and everywhere the parent of despotism--including, or perhaps especially, in democracies.

"People need defenses against democracies as well as tyrannies," writes Bovard. "Government is an elective dictatorship when voters do little more than select who will violate the laws and Constitution. Bush, like other U.S. Presidents, perpetually equates democracy with freedom. But if the purported consent of voters confers upon the winner the right to nullify citizens' rights--they are voting for a master, not a representative. Elections become little more than reverse slave auctions, in which the slaves choose their masters."

H.L. Mencken famously wrote that democracy assumes that the people know what they want "and deserve to get it--good and hard." Bovard, whose writing is frequently Menckenesque (this reviewer can think of few finer compliments to confer on a political commentator), refines that cynical but correct assessment: "Democracy multiplies the number of people with a vested interest in delusions about government."

"At this point," Bovard ruefully observes, "the de facto American theory of government consists of trusting to the good intentions of those who hold nearly boundless power over us, trusting that they will not violate any laws that don't really need violating, that they won't bomb any foreign countries that don't really need bombing, and that they won't torture anyone who doesn't really need torturing. And if they do violate laws, bomb foreigners, and torture innocents--then it is all harmless errors and folks should just move along because there is nothing to see here"

The system of liberty under law created by our Founding Fathers was a federated republic in which the central government was to have only those specific (and revocable) powers assigned by our Constitution. Skeptical scrutiny of the claims and actions of elected representatives--coupled with organized action to hold them accountable--was regarded by the Founders as the essence of principled patriotism.

For those who understand and cherish freedom, critical thinking is not optional. "If people choose not to think, then they have chosen to submit," writes Bovard. "If people make no effort to understand the machinations of government, then they have chosen to be political victims."

Not merely a journalist, Bovard is a forensic pathologist building a case against the criminal abuse of power by government. While most readers of THE NEW AMERICAN are aware of much of what Bovard covers in this book, it is a worthy investment if only to enjoy the author's full-bodied, savory prose. Not many writers are able to inform, outrage, and entertain simultaneously, and Bovard is distinguished even in that elite company.
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Author:Grigg, William Norman
Publication:The New American
Article Type:Book review
Date:Apr 17, 2006
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