The Paradox of American Democracy: Elites, Special Interests, and the Betrayal of Public Trust

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9780679432548: The Paradox of American Democracy: Elites, Special Interests, and the Betrayal of Public Trust

John B. Judis, one of our most insightful political commentators, most rational and careful thinkers, and most engaged witnesses in Washington, has taken on a challenge that even the most concerned American citizens shrink from: forecasting the American political climate at the turn of the century. The Paradox of American Democracy is a penetrating examination of our democracy that illuminates the forces and institutions that once enlivened it and now threaten to undermine it. It is the well-reasoned discussion we need in this era of unrestrained expert opinions and ideologically biased testimony.

The disenchantment with our political system can be seen in decreasing voter turnout, political parties co-opted by consultants and large contributors, the corrupting influence of "soft money," and concern for national welfare subverted by lobbying organizations and special-interest groups. Judis revisits particular moments -- the Progressive Era, the New Deal, the 1960s -- to discover what makes democracy the most efficacious and, consequently, most inefficacious. What has worked in the past is a balancing act between groups of elites --- trade commissions, labor relations boards, policy groups -- whose mandates are to act in the national interest and whose actions are governed by a disinterested pursuit of the common good. Judis explains how the displacment of such elites by a new lobbying community in Whashington has given rise to the cynicism that corrodes the current political system.

The Paradox of American Democracy goes straight to the heart of every political debate in this country.

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Review:

As the United States faces what many see as another lackluster election in November 2000, John B. Judis's The Paradox of American Democracy addresses the decline of public participation in national politics over the course of the 20th century. He persuasively attributes the blame to the deteriorated relationship between unions and grassroots activists and the elite policy foundations that often championed their causes, a relationship eroded by self-interested businessmen and populist demagoguery. American political life, Judis writes, was never strictly a contest between popular and wealthy special-interest groups. Public policy organizations such as the Ford Foundation and the Brookings Institution, for example, have pushed for, or refereed, legislation for social, economic, and political reform that benefited labor, civil rights, and environmental activists. Since the 1970s, though, think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute have pursued their own economic interests by forging links with reactionary populist groups like the Moral Majority, silencing progressive voices less able to present their interests amidst the onslaught of corporate propaganda. Public policy, Judis feels, is now formed primarily by lobbyists rather than those concerned about the broader public welfare.

Paradox presents a detailed portrait of how organized political blocs, independent public policy foundations, and the federal government have interacted over the last 100 years, and how the relationship has been eroded by corporate priorities. While his facts are correct, Judis's fondness for the hegemonic social order of FDR's New Deal and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society might raise objections from sympathetic readers who feel that vital leftist energy was co-opted by post-Fordism, not enabled by it. The link between activists' declining access to power and the dwindling electoral turnout could also be made more explicit. Judis nevertheless provides a brisk and informative history of the structure of American civic life. --John M. Anderson

From the Back Cover:

"John Judis is our finest reporter and analyst of Washington's inner workings. His new book brilliantly relates the secret history of the Clinton era -- its origins, its frustrations, and its disloyal opponents. It is a chilling tale that others have been either too trusting or too timid to tell straight."
-- Sean Wilentz, Dayton-Stockton Professor of History, Princeton University

"This is a compelling analysis of our irresponsible elite -- and an astute history of times when 'the public interest' had real meaning. John Judis is one of America's best political journalists, and his book is essential to understanding our current political mandates."
-- Michael Kazin, author of The Populist Persuasion: An American History

"With the insight that has made him one of our wisest political observers, John Judis makes a trenchant analysis of what has gone wrong with American democracy -- and how it can be corrected."
-- Ronald Steel, author of In Love with Night: The American Romance with Robert Kennedy

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