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.