Reading post-2012-election news reports can be hazardous to one’s mental health, particularly for the sanity-challenged among us. But perhaps the singularly most prescient comments come from long ago—from the pen of America’s most profound novelist, Herman Melville, whose words in his powerful novel of deception and intrigue, “The Confidence Man: His Masquerade,” echo across the decades: “Any philosophy that, being in operation contradictory to the ways of the world, tends to produce a character at odds with it, such a philosophy must necessarily be but a cheat and a dream.”
Welcome to the 21st century, Herman, because little did you know that your observations of the 1850s actually define a new stage in the growth of American democracy; call it the “Era of the Confidence Game.” In terms of historical development, this stage fits somewhere between representative democracy and fascism. Consider representative democracy first, which emphasizes the role of bargaining among various parties in the political arena for the purposes of achieving the most suitable tradeoffs in terms of policy results that redound to the public good, or at least to as many people as the interests in question represent. In short, representative democracy at its best is rational, utilitarian, and respectful of the private sector and ordinary citizens.