Monday, July 13, 2009

Why We Can't Have a Really Good Democracy

Monarchy is the best form of government,
if you can find a good King. Aristotle

The capacity of justice makes democracy
possible, the tendency toward injustice,
makes it necessary. Reinhold Niebuhr

Democracy is the worst form of government
except for all those others that have been tried.
Winston Churchhill

It is impossible to have a good democracy in the United States, i. e., one that is prosperous, well-ordered with liberty, equality, and justice for all, fully protective of minority rights, and that serves all appropriately.

The country is too large, too diverse racially, religiously, ethnically, regionally, economically, and ideologically to be a melting pot in which an informed moral commitment to the most noble values determines policy by way of a political process appropriately organized to achieve them.

It might be sufficient simply to quote Churchill, "The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter." But I will proceed.

The worst corruption of democracy is that intensely focused parochial interests are able to distort the process to achieve narrow ends offensive to justice and the welfare of all, especially the poor and powerless. They may be regional (agricultural subsidies), ideological (reactionary religion), topical (NRA), or economic (well-funded corporate lobbyists). Since Congressional politicians are elected regionally, their views are frequently shaped by interests and perspectives peculiar to that constituency rather than the welfare of the whole.

Consider, for example, how the narrow interests represented by the gun lobby (NRA) are fanatically devoted to a specific issue, whose operatives watch every political move in detail searching of even the slightest deviation from their absolutist dogma. They are armed sufficiently with money and backed by enough members and regional ideological preferences to enable them to influence legislation in disproportionate fashion. Pharmaceutical and drug companies, the Chamber of Commerce, the Israeli lobby, the military-industrial-university complex, and others illustrate the principle that intensely focused restricted interests with money and organization can be victorious over much larger constituencies whose concerns are broadly distributed but lacking concentrated focus on these specific ones, especially when this is joined with general apathy and ignorance of issues and political processes in general that do not concern them directly.

At this moment Congressional factions are threatening to defy recommendations of the military, the Secretary of Defense, and the President that the F22 fighter is not needed and should not be funded. Why? Because the defense industries have seen to it that the manufacturers and suppliers are scattered around the country, enabling regional interests to supercede national interest. The same folks will condemn deficit spending and a bloated federal budget. Alas, alas! Hooray for American democracy.

Added to this is the dismal state of political dialogue in this country-aided and abetted by talk-show radio, mass instant electronic communication, and 24-hour news channels--that reduces debate to simplistic talking points that have emotional attractiveness for the unwary or analytically unskilled. These appeals are carefully designed with professional public relations assistance, sometimes spiced with deliberate lies or distortions crafted to exploit ignorance and bias. All this is made possible by the fact that multitudes people are too apathetic, too lazy, understandably so bogged down in immediate personal struggles, or so easily duped by their own uncritical, never questioned, base of inherited misinformation, bias, or subtle perfidy.

Let us not forget that in the Electoral College and the Senate, small states have power all out of proportion to the citizens represented in an increasingly urban population. In the Senate, e. g., at the moment this is bad news for health care reform since some of the most powerful Senators are from small states with interests different from where the vast majority of people live. For example, "The 21 smallest states together hold fewer people than California's 36.7 million -- which means there are 42 senators who together represent fewer constituents than Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein." For details see:

Pervading all this is a persisting individualism shaped by the early history of the country with its expanding frontier and the necessity of self-reliance, partially explaining why socialism never came to America -- that old standard question.

Countervailing trends are created by changes in cultural consciousness, e. g., on civil rights or gay rights, as well as by crises which do concentrate the attention of large constituencies. Such situations when skillfully organized can potentially exploit kairotic moments ripe and ready for transformative change when sufficiently informed by liberating visions that excite enthusiasm enabled by political mobilization and charismatic leaders and geared to achieve more ideal ends.

Of course, if we all loved justice, freedom, equality, prosperity, and well being for all as much as we loved ourselves, we might be inspired to try and smart enough to succeed in creating the institutions and processes that would produce an ideal democracy. Darn that original sin!

To spell all this out would require a book. My aim has been to make some initial suggestions hinting at why an ideal democracy is impossible under current conditions.

1 comment:

abinstein said...

Great article. Couldn't agree more.