Gore's call for a more active democracy

In his 'Assault on Reason,' former Vice President Al Gore chides a passive electorate too dependent on TV.

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After he won the popular election but lost the presidency in a fog of disputed vote counts in 2000, Al Gore seemed to be the model good loser.

He didn't claim (as many of his supporters did) that the election had been stolen by corrupt voting officials or by Republican-appointed Supreme Court justices who blocked a vote recount in Florida. Shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 2001, Mr. Gore told a Democratic state convention, "George W. Bush is my president, and I will follow him, as will we all, in this time of crisis."

But that was before Gore came to believe – as have many Americans – that the war in Iraq had been launched under weak (or false) premises without adequate understanding of that country's history or culture, then conducted incompetently; that Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were failing to adequately address growing public concern over greenhouse gases and climate change; and that the growth of government secrecy constituted an unprecedented invasion of privacy.

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The Assault on Reason reflects Gore's growing frustration at the way things have turned out for this country over the past six years. It burns with a pent-up rage that could be seen as highly personal.

Regarding the Iraq war, he writes of Bush: "He waged the politics of blind faith. He used a counterfeit combination of misdirected vengeance and misguided dogma to dominate the national discussion, bypass reason, silence dissent, and intimidate those who question his logic both inside and outside the administration."

On energy policy and global warming, he says, "Indeed, it seems at times as if the Bush-Cheney administration is wholly owned by the coal, oil, utility, and mining companies."

This is tough stuff, and it could be dismissed as the bitterness of a man who lost the presidency to a political rival for whom he apparently has little respect.

But drawing on the sweep of history, his expertise in national security policy (as a congressman and senator he was an early advocate of military reform), and the facts of science and technology, Gore builds his case steadily and thoroughly.

He can (and frequently has) come across as the smartest guy in the room – which many people don't see as a compliment. On one page, he references Alexander Hamilton, Adam Smith, Samuel Johnson, Immanuel Kant, Plutarch, and the apostle Paul.

But for many readers, Gore's intelligence and experience will be virtues to admire, even if he may not come across as the fun guy at the barbecue.

For Gore, democracy (not to be confused with politics) should be much more than a spectator sport, as it was, at least ideally, for the nation's founders. True representative democracy, Gore argues, demands much of its citizens – principally the constant effort to be personally well-informed based on facts and the exercise of reason.

But what this modern-day Jeremiah sees instead are "the signs of a dangerous downward spiral for our democracy."

One of the main reasons? "As the dominance of television has grown, extremely important elements of American democracy have begun to be pushed to the sidelines.... The print-based public sphere that had emerged from the books, pamphlets, and essays of the Enlightenment has ... come to seem as remote as the horse and buggy."

In other words, there's now an intellectual passivity largely the result of the "one-way medium" of TV. (On average, Americans are exposed to 4-1/2 hours of television a day, he notes.)

As a result, Gore warns, "the internal balance between reason, fear, and faith" is thrown off balance, taken advantage of by ideologues and a remarkably incurious president.

Does this make him an annoying scold – looking down on average citizens from an elevated intellectual and moral height? Is he merely adding more bile to an already bitter political atmosphere? Some may view "The Assault on Reason" that way, especially if they already see Gore as the caricature his opponents have portrayed him as.

But to those concerned about the country's place in the world today and the direction of American politics and society, Al Gore's treatise is a very valuable if sobering reminder that democracy has to be constantly worked at by all of us.

Brad Knickerbocker is a Monitor staff writer.

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