Obama and Attention Deficit Democracy

for the Future of Freedom Foundation today….

by James Bovard

In his commencement address at the University of Michigan on May 1, President Obama warned that public ignorance subverts self-government. Obama declared: “When we don’t pay close attention to the decisions made by our leaders, when we fail to educate ourselves about the major issues of the day… that’s when democracy breaks down. That’s when power is abused.”

Unfortunately, most Americans have little or no idea how government works or who is holding the reins on their lives. Most American voters do not know the name of their congressman, the length of terms of House or Senate members, or what the Bill of Rights guarantees. Most Americans cannot name a single Supreme Court justice or a single cabinet department in the federal government. But the ignorance goes far beyond Civics 101.

In his commencement speech, Obama declared that “we need an educated citizenry that values hard evidence and not just assertion.” Except, of course, when government officials assert that “there is nothing to see here — just move along.” While Obama loudly urges Americans to get better informed, Republicans and Democrats are quietly covering up some of the government’s worst abuses.

Obama heavily pressured Congress last year to enact a law prohibiting the release of thousands of photos showing horrendous abuse of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan by U.S. troops. From 2004 onwards, the U.S. government deceived Americans — first claiming the torture scandal involved only “a few bad apples” from West Virginia, and then insisting that it was merely a few bad units, and then asserting that there was no national policy. By 2008, it was clear that the torture was mandated at high levels of the White House and Pentagon. Suppressing the photos makes it easier for former Vice President Dick Cheney and others who crafted the policies to continue denying that any crimes ever occurred.

Obama is also squelching the vast majority of facts regarding the National Security Agency’s 2002+ warrantless wiretapping of Americans. (Federal Judge Vaughn Walker recently ruled that the wiretaps were illegal.) No individual American has been permitted to know whether NSA copied his email or recorded his calls. The Obama administration even refuses to release the Bush-era Justice Department memos that “proved” why government is now entitled to spy on citizens without a warrant. While Congress granted retroactive immunity to the federal officials and phone companies that betrayed Americans’ privacy, Obama’s Justice Department is prosecuting a NSA official for notifying the media of the abuse.

Obama’s vision of democracy also does not include permitting Americans to learn which banks and other financial institutions received trillions of dollars of subsidies and guarantees from the Federal Reserve. Sen. Bernie Sanders (Ind.–Vt.) and Rep. Ron Paul (R–Tx.) pushed an “Audit the Federal Reserve” amendment to the financial regulation bill. But the Obama White House acted as if disclosing the names of the lucky companies that received windfall benefits would violate the rights of the biggest welfare recipients in American history.

How are citizens supposed to stop abuses when politicians refuse to let them know what government is doing? The government claims that evidence of its torture and wiretapping must be suppressed in the name of national security. But this greatly reduces the likelihood that Americans will learn from their rulers’ folly.

The recent cover-ups illustrate how our republic is becoming an Attention Deficit Democracy. The government remains nominally democratic — elections continue to be boisterous events with mass rallies and tidal waves of dubious ads. But after the polling booths close, most citizens remain clueless about what their rulers do in their name.

Attention Deficit Democracy begets Leviathan because rulers exploit people’s ignorance to seize more power over them. The contract between rulers and ruled is replaced by a blank check. And regardless of how many secrets the government keeps, the rulers still act like the people are liable for all the government’s abuses.

Obama urged graduating students to “pay attention” and “stay informed.” Citizens should be especially curious about what lurks behind the curtains that politicians close. The more crimes politicians are permitted to hide, the fewer liberties citizens will retain.

James Bovard is the author of Attention Deficit Democracy [2006] as well as The Bush Betrayal [2004], Lost Rights [1994] and Terrorism and Tyranny: Trampling Freedom, Justice and Peace to Rid the World of Evil (Palgrave-Macmillan, September 2003) and serves as a policy advisor for The Future of Freedom Foundation.


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5 Responses to Obama and Attention Deficit Democracy

  1. D. Saul Weiner May 21, 2010 at 1:15 pm #

    Just a reminder that Obama is the king of chutzpah.

  2. alpowolf May 21, 2010 at 4:56 pm #

    Ha! You can “pay attention” and “stay informed” but you’d better not ask embarrassing questions or, even worse, disagree with Big Gov. That would make you an “extremist” and we know what happens to those!

  3. epppie May 25, 2010 at 6:13 am #

    Right. Self Reliance is a wonderful idea that most folks aspire to, but of course, in a society where the means to support oneself and one’s family and contribute to one’s community are not available to most folks, who have limited or no access to resources, and so must depend on those who do have access to resources, that’s a relatively unattainable goal for most, and you have to know this. If you really care about self-reliance, than you should criticize the way programs like welfare have been designed to make it difficult for people to help themselves. But it’s apparent that what you really want is a society where a tiny percentage of the population owns virtually everything, and the rest live in the most grotesque poverty – the kind of society we’ve seen so much of in Latin America, where the pattern set by the conquistadors has been perpetuated.

  4. Dirk W. Sabin May 29, 2010 at 3:52 pm #

    Yes, but he is sporting to accept blame for everything. In the light of such nobility, we can relax while the knives are sharpened.

    We should have to admire his skills if indeed they were skills but anointing the honor of “skill” on bait and switching the current populace is like congratulating the early buffalo hunters for their trigger skills. It was a Green Industry then just as it is now. Boxcars of bleached bones were shipped back east for use as fertilizer.

  5. Jim May 29, 2010 at 10:01 pm #

    Well, as long as the new railroad jobs are properly unionized….