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Can We Rescue the Republic Before the Dark Politics Take Over?

Books by Chris Hedges, Thom Hartmann and Cass Sunstein suggest that we've nearly lost our sense of self-government. None show the way to get it back.

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Unfortunately, Empire of Illusion won't enlighten or offend the large swaths of functionally illiterate Americans transfixed by smut, pro wrestling, reality TV or celebrity gossip, because those people won't read the book. But this scholarly 193-page diatribe, which draws from a 100-author bibliography ranging from the late neo-Marxist Frankfurt School icon Theodor Adorno (The Culture Industry) to Princeton professor emeritus Sheldon Wolin ( Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism), would surely madden many proud affiliates and alumni of America's elite university system.

Hedges, who attended New England prep schools, Colgate and Harvard as a young man, and later taught at Princeton, Columbia and New York University, asserts in Chapter 3, "The Illusion of Wisdom," that Harvard, Yale, Princeton and most elite schools "do only a mediocre job of teaching students to question and think." Elite universities are in the business of producing "hordes of competent systems managers" not critical thinkers. Those statements strike me as generally accurate. But I'd expect some fierce academic blowback from this notion: "The elite universities disdain honest intellectual inquiry, which is by its nature distrustful of authority, fiercely independent, and often subversive." And Hedges suggests that these high-end schools "refuse to question a self-justifying system" in which "organization, technology, self-advancement, and information systems are the only things that matter."

Hedges not only blames the elite universities for our mortgage-fueled financial crisis but is sure their alumni on Wall Street and in Washington have no capacity to really fix the economic system. "Indeed, they'll make it worse," he predicts, exchanging his reportorial register for the absolutist. "They have no concept, thanks to the educations they have received, of how to replace a failed system with a new one." (He includes George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Obama's "degree-laden" cabinet members in this group.)

If Hedges knows how to fix the system, he doesn't tell us in Empire of Illusion. I hope that'll be the subject of his next book, because in the meantime, "powerful corporate entities, fearful of losing their influence and wealth" are waiting for "a national crisis that will allow them, in the name of national security and moral renewal, to take complete control," he warns, without citing verifiable evidence for his dire prediction.

What if PBS, Fox and YouTube organized a national debate featuring Chris Hedges, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, his predecessor Hank Paulson, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, Christian Coalition president Roberta Combs and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid? That panel is a little far-fetched, but it's the sort of cross-ideological forum that Cass Sunstein prescribes in Republic.com 2.0 as a way of preventing the nation from sliding into factional, perhaps even violent strife.

Sunstein is a law professor, author and perennial all-star in the world of public intellectuals; he took leave from Harvard Law School to be administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at President Obama's Office of Management and Budget. "The American constitutional order was designed to create a republic, as opposed to a monarch or direct democracy," he writes. "Representatives would be accountable to the public at large. But there was also supposed to be a large degree of reflection and debate, both within the citizenry and within government itself."

Of course, the Founding Fathers knew public debate could get ugly. Sunstein notes Alexander Hamilton's belief that the "jarring of parties" was a good thing because it would engender deliberation and, over time, a "republic of reasons."

Are we one today? Not as much as we could be, Sunstein thinks. His fundamental concern in Republic.com 2.0 is the Internet's potential for impeding deliberation between groups with opposing viewpoints, eventually increasing ideological rigidity and polarization to a point of no return. It's vastly easier to join like-minded Internet "enclaves" across the world than to drive across town for a meeting in which someone might challenge one's pre-established beliefs and positions. Sunstein walks readers through behavioral studies finding that when groups of like-minded individuals are isolated from different viewpoints, they tend toward consensus on the most extreme position held within the group.