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

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Is Democracy Broken?

David Brooks writing in the New York Times (5.20.14) suggests that there is something badly wrong with Western-style democracy:

It’s now clear that the end of the Soviet Union heralded an era of democratic complacency. Without a rival system to test them, democratic governments have decayed across the globe. In the U.S., Washington is polarized, stagnant and dysfunctional; a pathetic 26 percent of Americans trust their government to do the right thing. In Europe, elected officials have grown remote from voters, responding poorly to the euro crisis and contributing to massive unemployment… Freedom has been in retreat around the world….and the number of nations that the Bertelsmann Foundation now classifies as “defective democracies” (rigged elections and so on) has risen to 52.

In a recent article (http://www.uncleguidosfacts.com/2014/03/western-style-democracy-is-finished.html) I focused on how democracy has been of little concern to Putin, the regimes that followed the Arab Spring and those in Afghanistan and Iraq. Sectarianism is the rule of the streets, and once popular uprisings deposed the dictators who kept the lid on the boiling pots of religion and ethnicity, factional interests fought to establish their own hegemony.  The idea of a liberal democracy has been the last thing in the minds of the leaders of sectarian communities.  Even when certain democratic precepts were followed – such as free-and-fair elections in Palestine – elected regimes like Hamas established their own anti-democratic regimes.  In other words they have used ‘democracy’ as a means to undemocratic ends.

The Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds plus all of their sub-factions in Iraq, want only what they consider their fair share of the country’s riches after decades of dictatorial rule.  The Taliban once in power in Afghanistan will once again return the country to Sharia Law and medieval Islamic fundamentalism. 

Putin understands history and his country’s glorious past. War and Peace alone displays the grandeur of Imperial Russia, its importance in European history, its deeply-rooted cultural traditions, its patriotism, nationalism, and sophistication.  The Soviet Union may have been an unsuccessful political and economic experiment, says Putin, but it still was a powerful reincarnation of Imperial Russia.  The West would be foolish to think of the new Russia as a new Western-style democracy.  The new Russia rejects America and the EU with all their inconsistencies, fractures, and historical myopia.  The new Russia will once again celebrate Russian history, values, religion, and destiny.

Even in Western Europe, sectarian demands are increasing.  France, especially, with its high proportion of increasingly fundamentalist, militant Muslims, is slowly realizing that this growing minority does not subscribe to Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, and does not want to be French.  The law of Islam will always trump secular law.  God’s law will always take precedence over the imperfect and venal laws constructed by Man.

China and Singapore, as Brooks points out, have had no use for Western-style democracy; but have seen double-digit growth and a dramatic improvement in social indicators.  China has always believed that economic development always precedes political equality.  The various freedoms of speech, assembly, the press, etc. mean nothing to the poor man.  At the very least they can wait.  Who can dispute the fact that vast numbers of Chinese are now prospering or living well under this undemocratic and authoritarian system? As I have noted in a previous blog post:

In China, political Confucians defend an alternative approach [to Western democracy]: the Way of the Humane Authority. The question of political legitimacy is central to their constitutional thought. Legitimacy is not simply what people think of their rulers; it is the deciding factor in determining whether a ruler has the right to rule. And unlike Western-style democracy, there is more than one source of legitimacy.

According to the Gongyang Zhuan, a commentary on a Confucian classic, political power can be justified through three sources: the legitimacy of heaven (a sacred, transcendent sense of natural morality), the legitimacy of earth (wisdom from history and culture), and the legitimacy of the human (political obedience through popular will) – From A Confucian Constitution for China http://www.uncleguidosfacts.com/2012/07/confucian-constitution-for-china.html

But is the democratic system operating in America working? What about the increasing numbers of Americans who are fed up with government, who feel that the One Percent reap all the benefits of capitalism, that the deck is stacked against the little man, and that the political process produces only rancor, division, animosity, and few results?

The percentage of Americans who vote in Congressional elections is barely 40 percent. Even these officials who represent local interests are given wide berth.  In India, a country with millions still living in remote rural areas, in poverty, and largely marginalized from the economic mainstream, nearly 70 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in Parliamentary elections in 2014.  What is as important, over 90 percent of voting-age Indians were registered to vote.

America, it seems, is resting on its laurels and complaisantly accepting the convoluted political system that would be barely recognizable to the Founding Fathers. If the noblesse oblige of the times is anathema to today’s multi-culturalists, Hamilton, Madison, and others understood the limitation of populism.  They all read Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 2 and appreciated his vicious caricature of the twisted populist Jack Cade.

The designers and engineers of our Republic understood the nature of leadership and its obligations and responsibilities.  Those men of wealth, position, education, and sophistication were the most appropriate to guide the new nation in its early years and to provide an intellectual anchor for a country made up of ambitious, entrepreneurial, but still raucous and uneducated men. The Founding Fathers not only listened to the sages of the Enlightenment but those of Ancient Greece and Rome who founded their republics on the same principles of intelligent leadership and responsibility.

Democracy now is a mess.  There is no way to look at recent Republican primaries as anything but circuses.  The poor voter has no choice but to vote for a clown. Once in office these mountebanks begin the dollar hustle, forget about governing, and turn to the hustings a week after they put up their family photos.

Most importantly most Americans are mired in place.  The American dream exists for a select few, not the majority working two jobs, living in trailers, or eking out a meager living on family farms.  Whether the Left is correct in its plea for more government investment for the poor; or whether one should listen more to the Right which insists on more individual responsibility, enterprise, and ambition, the fact remains that life for most Americans is routinely plain and unpromising.

American democracy, both that practiced here and that hawked overseas, is based principally on The Vote.  Voting is a secular sacrament which ennobles, illuminates, and saves.  Nothing else counts – not a transparent and responsive judiciary, equal access to credit, a fair system of laws and policing, or a free and open press.  All America’s efforts in the Middle East and elsewhere have been based solely on The Vote.  It is no wonder that real democracy never has a chance.

The inertia of the current American system of democratic capitalism is such that nothing but the most insignificant reforms can be instituted at this time.  Too much political capital has been invested in promoting the image of America as The Shining City on a Hill. Flag-waving and ‘Freedom!’ are highly valued currency in today’s political market.

It is also unlikely that Americans, so dismissive of things foreign, will pay attention to the real meaning of current events in Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Russia, and Western Europe.  The struggles there are not just about democracy versus anti-liberal forces.  They are about the nature of democracy itself.  We should pay attention.

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