Thursday, April 14, 2011

What's Wrong with U.S. Democracy?

by Richard Crews
Winston Churchill, an astute observer and often an international battering target of U.S. politics, said, "You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing--after they've tried everything else.” He also said that "democracy is the worst form of government except for all others that have been tried."

An observer of democracy in the U.S. is struck with the absurd disparity between popular opinions--as measured by the parade of opinion polls (the final poll on any issue being an election)--and any realistic assessment of the grave and complex issues at risk. Popular opinion on political issues has been characterized as "somewhere between irrational hysteria and psychotic stupidity."

Notwithstanding this, the U.S. political machinery and discourse is often held in high esteem internationally; it is characteristically the gold standard by which other modern, humane, and responsive governing systems are measured. Francis Fukuyama, in his epochal essay "The End of History," opined that--after centuries of tyrants, wars, and the gradual arc of history curving toward justice--the final form of government had been achieved: liberal democracy on an economic and cultural base of private, entrepreneurial capitalism. And this grand cultural invention was becoming accepted worldwide. For many, the U.S. appears to be the oldest, largest, and most successful manifestation of this historical thrust.

How shall we reconcile this disparity between the golden myth of U.S. democracy and the facts on the ground?

Perhaps it is inevitable that any close observation of political (or any administrative) machinery be disappointing. The famous observation that "anyone who likes sausages and respects the law should not watch either being made" is perhaps inescapable. Perhaps greed and power-hungry ambition are so intrinsic to human nature that anyone put into a leadership role should be expected to function with personal avarice and pride bubbling gradually to the surface of their actions. Perhaps counter examples in history--Lincoln, Gandhi, Mandela--are rare.

Perhaps modern information and communication technology has merely exacerbated psychological and historical factors that have been with us for a long time. But the modern 24/7 news cycle which displaces in a few days a natural tragedy in Haiti or Japan with some political scandal or athletic triumph in order to maintain a frenzied, entertainment pace is not conducive to thoughtful consideration of important national issues--the national debt, education, infrastructure limitations, global warming, green energy, etc.

There is a lot "right" about U.S. democracy. But there is also a lot "wrong" with the frenzied, entertainment quality of media coverage which exacerbates the underlying self-centered myopia of human nature.