'We Know What's Best For You'

Courtney LaDuke, left, and Mike Cartier led a march for peace in Plattsburgh, N.Y., Saturday, April 22, 2006. An estimated 250 people participated in the rally, which featured speakers Bill Provost, Plattsburgh city councilor, and Robert Johnson, U.S. Congress candidate. (AP Photo/Press-Republican, Michael Betts)
AP Photo/Press-Republican
This commentary was written by's Dick Meyer.

For several weeks in a row there have been headlines like "Bush Approval Rating Hits New Low." This week, it was CNN's turn to break the news, with a poll showing just 32 percent who like the president's performance and 60 percent who do not.

Poll numbers like this give Democrats hope. In fact, most Democratic hopes lately have come from their opponents' vices and not their own virtues.

November will be the last time that voters can punish George Bush and I expect they will. I think that, however, is close to the limit of Democratic hopes for the medium-term future. Their progress will be determined by Republican regress.

My hunch is that Democrats will capture House and Senate seats but not the House or Senate. And if they do, the victory will be fleeting and they will do poorly in 2008.

That's a hunch, no more, and I admit it. But I felt it as a certainty when I read a column by The Washington Post's E.J. Dionne this week. Dionne was arguing with a fellow liberal who wrote what the Democrats need to do is destroy today's "radical individualism" and replace it with "a politics of a "common good." That's fine, Dionne said, but we need to hear "more about self-interest, rightly understood."

That phrase made me cringe. It still does.

"Self-interest, rightly understood" is a fancy-pants way of saying, "I know what is in your interest better than you do." It is, in my view, a politically stupid and morally diseased position. Democrats, by temperament, are slightly more susceptible to it than Republicans.

I do not mean to condemn Dionne for a phrase. But I will. It reminded me of something written on the very first page of a book that lots of Democrats think is absolutely brilliant, "What's the Matter with Kansas" by Thomas Frank.

In the third paragraph of his book, Frank writes: "People getting their fundamental interests wrong is what American political life is all about." That, too, is a fancy-pants way of saying: "I know what is in your interest better than you do."

Frank spends the rest of his book explaining why the people of Kansas go against their obvious self-interest and vote for Republicans and not Democrats. His explanations are fascinating and interesting. His premise is intellectually totalitarian.

That may strike you as a rather extreme denunciation. It is, so I'll explain why, in my view, thinking that you know what is in other people's best interests is perhaps the worst political impulse that good people commonly have.

Actually, that is an easy task because it has already been done for the ages and to perfection by the British historian and essayist Isaiah Berlin. In 1958, he delivered a talk he entitled "Two Concepts of Liberty." It became one of the most influential essays in political philosophy written in English in the 20th century.