March 2010

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Democracy is Failing


by Jonathan Wallace



           One of the best books on the metaphor on which American government is based is “A Machine That Would Go of Itself,” by Michael Kammen. It presents our Constitution, in its original conception, as a sort of perpetual motion machine, self fueled and exempt from the Second Law of Thermodynamics.


           This ideal has rarely been matched in the real knock-down drag-out which has been American politics.The reality is that nothing is exempt from the Second Law,even metaphors; all human systems seem to burn some irreplaceable part of themselves inevery transaction, and to give out when there isn't enough of it left. Democracies historically seem to thrive not more than two or three hundred years, around the period ours is reaching, before something goes very wrong, and they end.


           I can imagine a system which would carry on possibly for a much longer period of time. It would be one fueled by humility, tolerance and compassion.


           Its citizens would each have a healthy dose of self-doubt as to whether their otherwise passionately held beliefs were the correct prescriptive rules for everyone else to live by. There would be a sane sense that prescriptive rules tend, unless there is firm evidence otherwise, to be comfortably variable to individual circumstances. If you disapprove of gay marriage, don't marry someone of your own sex. Objectively speaking, what is there about the rule which would justify imposing it on your neighbor who feels differently? On the other hand, disapproval of water-boarding in my utopia would lead to a universal rule, because my humble citizens would recognize that it inflicts harm in a way gay marriage does not. I am supposing much clarity here, arguably even reasoning from my goal backwards, and I understand there will be moral decisions which involve much more ambiguity (drug use?).


           This humility would lead to an almost insane level of tolerance of the people around us. If no-one is capable of dictating everyone's mores on most subject matters, we must condone behavior and beliefs we don't even begin to understand—not just minor variations of our own beliefs (Episcopalians and Catholics don't look very different to a Jew) but wildly different ones (Wicca, animism and whatever). This humility and tolerance would lead to an understanding that we are all necessary parts of the machine we are in together, and that we must all pull together to make it work (“nice, nice, very nice, so many different people in the same device”).In times of threat and danger—such as an economic recession—we would find ways to attack our common problems together, in a spirit of bi- or multi-partisanship.


           Finally, compassion for others would be the glue binding our society together. There would be a background hum in our minds, a kind of dial tone, of belief that “none are free unless all are free, none are well fed unless all are well fed,” and so on. While this would not translate into a life of poverty and service for everybody, it would cause us to make decisions based in large part in favor of actions which help, and give us an aversion to actions that harm, other people.


           Humility, tolerance and compassion have never been the operative principle in American society. The years right after the Constitution was adopted, which fairly could be held to represent a test case of the Framers' intentions, are replete with examples of certainty, cruelty, intolerance and hatred. The Federalists and Republicans each accused each other of destroying the beautiful, fragile thing which had hatched only a moment before; the Federalists' Alien and Sedition acts promoted a political intolerance which included the arrest of an editor who said the president's ass was too fat (truth was not a defense); the Republicans, including Thomas Jefferson in the vice presidency, secretly bought hate journalism and encouraged sedition, successfully orchestrating the defeat of President Adams after one term and even the destruction of the Federalist party.


           If you look around the world at the other democracies, present and past, it is hard to find one which is effectively compassionate, humble and tolerant. Some of the European democracies probably fit this model—Holland, where the people seem to think very little of themselves and be very nice to one another, and maybe Switzerland. Humble, tolerant and compassionate societies tend to have parliamentary governments, which represent a much wider diversity of thought than a two party system. They also may not be the best at surviving outside attacks and provocations, as the people are not brutal enough to live in a brutal world.


           The best test of a humble, tolerant compassionate country is the extent to which it was unwilling to turn on its own citizens and neighbors. In World War II, some countries (Denmark, Holland) refused to hate and destroy Jews;others did so when ordered and compelled (France); some did so privately and joyously, recognizing an opportunity for rapine and theft (Poland). The world is full of examples of nations today ( Rwanda, anywhere where Shiites and Sunnis share a country) where part of the population is easily persuaded to rise up and murder the rest. Today, in the U.S., we haven't reached the murder stage (except for that of an occasional abortion doctor), but half the population intensely hates the other half, and accusations of socialism and democracy-destruction fly pretty freely. In classic fashion, the people accusing others of endangering our democracy are usually the biggest threats to it themselves.


           If I am postulating something which rarely exists, and never in the U.S., what is the fuel which has kept us going instead? The best I can figure, the U.S. ran on a kind of grudging convenience and expediency, the original notion that a group of people who had some significant differences (rural and urban, farming and manufacturing, slave owning and not) pulled together to achieve their own independence. Even when the people did not like and trust each other, they kept it largely to themselves, so that the train could keep barreling down the tracks.


           Besides expediency, fear could have kept us going, and also habit. Maybe American democracy had something in common with Communist Yugoslavia. Ethnicities who no outsider knew hated each other lived peacefully together for sixty years in mutual fear of a brutal parent. When the Soviets left, the murder began. When the parent departs, there is probably a period of time when children continue to behave carefully; there is an ingrained habit, an educated fear of consequences of rule-breaking, which evaporates over time as it becomes clear no-one is minding the store.


           American democracy seems to have reached this point. The best thought experiment I can propose to test this proposition is asking the arrogant and intolerant, what reason have they not to favora military coup? In many democracies, including some that weren't born yesterday, the military is the corrective which steps in when society is deemed to have exceeded certain parameters. Excluding those coups which are solely about the theft of power, coups tend to be mounted to protect certain vested interests such as property or even secularism.


           This last is a particularly interesting example. In Turkey, a democracy founded after World War I and thus about a century old, one of the army's roles is to step inin whenever a government threatens to institute an overly Islamic approach. What is remarkable about this is that in Turkey, the army is the ostensible protector of the values of humility and tolerance (you can't really create compassion at gunpoint).


           If you listen to the political rhetoric today—accusations that Obama has ended democracy, will seize everybody's guns, will institute socialism and the intrusive rule of big government, etc.--what is the rationale for not overthrowing such a government? If there is no understanding left that tolerating majorities with which we do not agree, and helping them solve large problems in a way we can live with, is a mainstay of democracy, why have a continuing commitment to the machinery at all?


           I wait in vain for Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck, after calling Obama a socialist and railing on about threats and dangers, to say, “But of course, he is the executive a majority of the people elected, so we must tolerate him.” Neither do these men say, “He must be overthrown immediately.” Instead, the tactic is stonewalling and sabotage, putting dynamite in the spokes of the wheel and blowing it up so that the administration can accomplish nothing.“I will permit no problem to be solved, no legislation to be passed, by the people I hate. Only my party can solve any problems, pass any legislation.” These are the same tactics which the Jeffersonians used successfully to derail the Adams administration.


           Wouldn't the same people who promote this hatred, seize power via a military coup if they thought they could get away with it? It is hard to see what would prevent them if they could look in a crystal ball and see with certainty they would succeed and there would be no hangings of themselves or their own people as a result. (Only of the “socialists”.)


           Strangely, the best protection we have today against a coup in this country is the culture of the military itself. The people at the very top—the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the commanders of large forces—seem to have a degree of tolerance and even humility the rest of the population lacks. These executives are trained to understand that their boss is the one elected by the people, and that they serve and obey him even when they don't agree with his beliefs. But how long can a bubble of tolerance of this sort last, in a country which has otherwise abandoned any idea of mutual understanding and cooperation? In places, there are little signs of a very different model of armed forces—military academies, for example, where Christian fundamentalism has taken secret root in the Republican-dominated years.


           That coup, when it comes—and every democracy from Greece and Rome on down has had one eventually—will be presented at first as aneffort to “save the Constitution”. Of course. Every coup leader announces at first he just plans to run things a little while, until conditions are right for an election. It will hardly matter, after that, whether one is eventually held or not; when humility, tolerance and compassion, or even a humble tolerant expediency, are nowhere to be found.