Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Is Democracy Practical?

I am a firm and dedicated believer in the democratic process and democratic government but I do fear that in some ways it is totally impractical. Ignore for the moment that we have not had a genuine democracy for a long time, if ever. Think of democracy in the abstract, as you would imagine it ought to be, one person, one vote, government for the people, of the people, and by the people, and etc.

Let me begin with a personal experience of democracy at work. For two or three years I once belonged to a co-op. We owned collectively a two building apartment complex, two identical buildings facing each other separated by a courtyard. There were 16 apartments and some 20 owners. It was a pretty congenial group, except, that is, when there were occasional actions to be taken. It took us more than three months to decide on what color to paint the exterior of our buildings. Two of the female owners actually had to consult with their psychiatrists before the decision was finally made. It caused a certain amount of animosity between us. It was, in short, a miserable experience. It made me begin to think about democracy.

One of the problems with a democratic form of government is that it is overly time-consuming. Things do not and cannot happen very quickly when you need a clear majority to get something done. This is quite apparent at the Presidential level and I have no doubt it is related to the Presidential takeover of going to war. Lyndon Johnson, for example, refused to call up the reserves during Viet Nam as he knew it would become too difficult an issue, so he stuck with the draft. Ronald Reagan engaged in subverting Congress with the Contra scandal for much the same reason. Clinton in Bosnia did much the same thing, as did Bush/Cheney. From the Presidential point of view it just takes too long and is too complicated to wait for a majority agreement. In fact, sometimes Presidents just avoid doing something completely because they know it will be virtually impossible to get any agreement. I suspect, for example, that President Obama did not necessarily want to protect Bush/Cheney and our other known war criminals, but realized that to investigate and prosecute them would be unbelievably harmful if not impossible, and would at best keep us from making any progress for several years (at least I hope that may be the reason).

Being too slow and cumbersome is not the only problem with democracy. The “art of compromise” is another serious problem. When you have a system that has to operate on the principle of compromise you never, by definition, get the best possible solution. You get instead some form of compromise. For example, the Obama health care achievement was the result of a compromise, so instead of getting a single payer system, or public option, that would have been far superior to what was achieved we got an unsatisfactory compromise that, while it might have been some improvement, was a far cry from what might have been achieved. Similarly, extending the tax breaks for the obscenely wealthy was a compromise when Obama had to agree to extend them in order to prevent a problem for the middle class. When you are constantly forced to compromise you necessarily get what you can, not what might be the best. This process is of course corrupted when the system itself is corrupted by other factors.

Being too slow and onerous also prevents a democracy from solving even serious problems when they arise. Citizens United is a good case in point. This decision by a corrupt Supreme Court threatens to completely destroy our (imagined) democracy, but it is virtually impossible to correct such an egregious mistake. A constitutional amendment is apparently the most likely solution, but an amendment will take years to accomplish and even were it to happen it would be too late to make much difference, the horse would already be out of the barn, so to speak. Similarly, when you have at least two obvious criminal and partisan Justices who are violating the law and threatening the constitution itself, and doing anything about it is so difficult no one even seriously suggests it, you should assume democracy is not really working as it should.

These problems with a democratic system would be true even if there was a genuine Democratic Republic, and even if all the elected officials were acting in good faith, and even if there were no lobbyists or outside money. In a world inhabited by other forms of government, however unfair and dictatorial they may be, democracy is at a disadvantage because it cannot act quickly and decisively. It is like entering the international arena with one hand tied behind your back. It is, as they say, “no way to run a railroad.”

Ideally, in a vacuum, a true Democratic Republic might well work as one would wish. Elected officials would do what they were supposed to do, following the wishes of the constituents that elected them, without having to review every issue over and over again. They would be free to act decisively and fairly quickly on behalf of those who elected them. But of course we do not live in a vacuum, and we do not have elected officials interested in doing the public’s business. In the real world of international politics, and even in the domestic world of chronic problems, democracy doesn’t work very efficiently. It is, I fear, basically impractical. In a world totally corrupted by special interests and unlimited funds it doesn’t work at all. Dictators make the trains run on time, democratic ones, after endless discussion and consideration tend to render them obsolete.

Democracy means government by discussion, but it is only effective if you can stop people talking.

Clement Atlee

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