Saturday, March 25, 2006


By James Bovard

Palgrave Macmillan,

$26.95, 304 pages


In “Attention Deficit Democracy,” widely published libertarian journalist James Bovard revisits what, for him, is familiar territory. He considers the American people as voters, and finds them wanting — ill-educated and incapable of grasping the realities that face them, specifically the erosion of their civil liberties.

He considers the executive branch likewise, and finds it to be primarily concerned with the expansion of its own powers. Mr. Bovard argues here that our elections are predicated on scare tactics and fear mongering, and that the spirit and letter of democracy have both been subverted in a concerted, bipartisan effort to establish what the author calls an “elective dictatorship.”

Unambiguously written, the book will definitely appeal to those who agree with Mr. Bovard’s conclusions. Other readers will find the “Attention Deficit Democracy” wanting.

The book veers off course for this reviewer early on, as Mr. Bovard’s repeated insistence on describing the United States as a “democracy” is an oversimplification that borders on being a falsehood. As is commonly known, the United States is not a simple democracy, but a republic, rooted in the Constitution, with a democratic process.

Mr. Bovard, as is the habit of many who share his leanings, invokes the “Founding fathers” in an attempt to vindicate his argument. But what Mr. Bovard leaves out is that these Founding fathers were suspicious of untrammelled democracy itself.

As James Madison wrote in “Federalist #10,” “Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security, or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives, as they have been violent in their deaths.”

In a different context, it might not matter that Mr. Bovard is playing fast and loose with the word “democracy” — it’s the kind of thing that political writers on the make do all the time. But in his current book, the author insists upon painting every political actor and action he doesn’t like as an assault on the American way of life. The bulk of his antipathy, naturally, is for the current president, who Mr. Bovard spends most of the book depicting as a cross between Vladimir Putin and Benito Mussolini.

Air-America friendly assertions (“On November 13, 2001, Bush announced that he had the right to nullify all rights”) abound here, as Mr. Bovard argues that the Administration’s stock-in-trade is “exploiting public dread,” which is easy, since “most Americans have long been political lightweights”, and therefore are ready prey for “weapons of mass deception.”

Such overheated and played-out rhetoric can animate an essay or a magazine article, but it can’t help but grate over the long haul. But for a bombthrower like Mr. Bovard, a grating tone is an occupational hazard.

Mr. Bovard’s trafficking in shopworn dissident rhetoric undermines some of the book’s more useful points. Neat dissections of the failings of the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration, for example, are hampered by the author’s insistence upon repeating the same familiar claims about President Bush’s failings — not just as a political leader, but as a man.

As the book proceeds, it becomes clear, especially in Mr. Bovard’s discussion of the president’s failed “moral lens,” that the author is so intent upon making ad hominem arguments that he cannot be bothered differentiating between the federal government, the Administration, and the person of the president.

Regrettably, the author’s character assassinations don’t stop at the president’s doorstep. It naturally is a given that Mr. Bovard devotes considerable energy to exposing the perfidy of “followers of Leo Strauss” and their influence over U.S. foreign policy. Likewise, it is somehow less than surprising that the author likens conservative heavyweights David Brooks and William Kristol to 1930s Italian fascists and apologists for the Warsaw Pact.

Such smearing is all in a day’s work for Mr. Bovard, who nonetheless finds the space to use the house publication of the John Birch Society and other extremist organs as sources to buttress his argument.

The book may have been stronger with more attention given to the domestic sphere. In discussing the expansion of governmental powers stateside, Mr. Bovard makes his most salient points about the hazards facing a depoliticized public. Sadly, though, “Attention Deficit Democracy” is more concerned with examining federal actions half a world away than within the borders of the United States. So it is that this book will find greatest resonance with those on the political fringes, who agree with authorial conclusions about American foreign policy.

A.G. Gancarski freelances from Jacksonville, Fla.

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