"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Age of Innocence–The Failure of Liberal Democracy

David Brooks has written an insightful article about governance in the New York Times (5.18.12) http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/18/opinion/the-age-of-innocence.html?ref=opinion in which he reviews the different paths to liberal democracy taken by Europe and the United States, but laments the fact that we both have lost our way:

The people who pioneered democracy in Europe and the United States had a low but pretty accurate view of human nature. They knew that if we get the chance, most of us will try to get something for nothing. So, in centuries past, the democratic pioneers built a series of checks to make sure their nations wouldn’t be ruined by their own frailties.

The American founders did this by decentralizing power. They built checks and balances to frustrate and detain the popular will. They also dispersed power to encourage active citizenship, hoping that as people became more involved in local government, they would develop a sense of restraint and responsibility.

In Europe, by contrast, authority was centralized. Power was held by small coteries of administrators and statesmen, many of whom had attended the same elite academies where they were supposed to learn the art and responsibilities of stewardship. Under the parliamentary system, one voted for parties, not individuals; and party elders selected the ones who would actually form the government.

Times have changed dramatically, argues Brooks, and now grass-roots interests rather than national issues drive government policy, the concept of leadership has changed.  Politicians are willingly beholden to parochial interests and demands in order to assure their election, and have abrogated their moral contract with the nation to make the right choices, not the most expedient ones:

But, over the years, this balanced wisdom was lost. Leaders today do not believe their job is to restrain popular will. Their job is to flatter and satisfy it. A gigantic polling apparatus has developed to help leaders anticipate and respond to popular whims. Democratic politicians adopt the mind-set of marketing executives. Give the customer what he wants. The customer is always right.

This was never the way democracy was intended, although the victory of Jefferson over Hamilton and his more conservative followers set the stage.  Hamilton was never in favor of a truly representative democracy, feeling that a more restricted participatory process would filter the necessarily less-educated and more profane desires of the electorate.  It was right to trust democracy, concluded Hamilton, not the masses. In The Federalist Papers, Hamilton elaborated on this philosophy:

The republican principle demands, that the deliberate sense of the community should govern the conduct of those to whom they entrust the management of their affairs; but it does not require an unqualified complaisance to every sudden gust of passion, or every transient impulse which the people may receive from the arts of men, who flatter their prejudices to betray their interests… When occasions present themselves in which the interests of the people are at variance with their inclinations, it is the duty of the persons whom they have appointed to be the guardians of those interests, to withstand the temporary delusion, in order to give them time and opportunity for more cool and sedate reflection (No.71)

Jefferson was more of a populist, believing in the will of the people who might no always be right, but whose collective good judgment would ultimately prevail.  Our form of government is Jeffersonian and very un-European in its assurance that no centralization of authority or arrogation of decision-making to the few would ever occur.  James Madison probably framed the issue best:

“As there is a degree of depravity in mankind, which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust: So there are other qualities in human nature, which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence.”

Madison understood human nature – that self-protective, demanding, and insistent need to put personal gain over larger interests – and knew that whatever government was created must guard against not only the arrogation and concentration of power that concerned Jefferson, but against the fickleness of the mob.  In Coriolanus, Shakespeare’s most political play, he writes about the early days of the Republic where the ‘plebeians’ have a say in the new, democratized Rome.  He pillories them unmercifully as they vacillate, are easily persuaded by whomever is addressing them, turn out their former hero, Coriolanus, then welcome him back.  In 2 Henry VI Jack Cade is a radical populist who wants to tear down society (and kill all lawyers) so that the people may rule.  He is also pilloried as a fanatic, fringe political maniac who represents the worst aspects of democracy.

In a perverse way, American democracy is much like that of the ancient Rome and pre-Elizabethan England described by Shakespeare – the people rule and there appears to be less and less wisdom in their judgment.  As Brooks writes, there is an unholy alliance between the governing – who will pander to any local interest to get elected – and the governed whose self-interest has no bounds.

Having lost a sense of their own frailty, many voters have come to regard their desires as entitlements. They become incensed when their leaders are not responsive to their needs. Like any normal set of human beings, they command their politicians to give them benefits without asking them to pay.

It gets worse.  Politicians not only pander to the desires of their constituents, they are beholden to vast corporate interests who are now freer than ever to support them.  While these corporations have a national view, it is not a view necessarily in the best interests of the country, so politicians operate in a double bind – they cater to the whims of their electorate and vote the interests of their corporate supporters. 

How did we get this way? How did we arrive at this radicalization of democracy where the balance thought so necessary at the nation’s beginning has been so lost? Money, of course, is at the root of the transformation.  Politics is no longer the simple affair it was 200 years ago.  Congressional districts are bigger, PACs and super-PACs are the rule of the day, and inordinate amounts of money are spent on campaigns which start the minute the Congressional representative takes his/her seat. 

Members of Congress become very, very wealthy once they leave office, since their insider information and know-how are worth millions to the very corporations that supported them while in office.  The primary process has further radicalized the political cycle.  The most fringe interests of the populace can be represented without the filter of party leadership. The Supreme Court not only has become politicized but narrowly focuses on highly partisan issues, such as abortion, church-state distinctions, and cases of civil liberties involving health care, immigration, and social welfare.  The Court, therefore, is not the neutral, restricted arbiter of the Constitution that it once was.

The consequences of this shift are now obvious. In Europe and America, governments have made promises they can’t afford to fulfill. At the same time, the decision-making machinery is breaking down. American and European capitals still have the structures inherited from the past, but without the self-restraining ethos that made them function.

The American decentralized system of checks and balances has transmogrified into a fragmented system that scatters responsibility. Congress is capable of passing laws that give people benefits with borrowed money, but it gridlocks when it tries to impose self-restraint.

Brooks offers no solutions to this dilemma; nor is it easy to foresee a day when the imbalance is rectified.  Only a major restructuring of democratic institutions can possibly forestall decades of political vanity and inaction:

Western democratic systems were based on a balance between self-doubt and self-confidence. They worked because there were structures that protected the voters from themselves and the rulers from themselves. Once people lost a sense of their own weakness, the self-doubt went away and the chastening structures were overwhelmed. It became madness to restrain your own desires because surely your rivals over yonder would not be restraining theirs.

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