06 August 2014

Loss of faith in democracy?

American public opinion hit a kind of milestone this summer when a survey conducted by ABC News and the Washington Post revealed that a majority of respondents disapproved of the performance of their own representative in Congress. Previously, it was often lamented that Americans deplored the performance of Congress as a whole, or as an institution, but were satisfied with how their own guy was doing. The supposed tendency not to blame your own guy for systematic dysfunction was seen as an obstacle to wholesale reform. So are we closer to a thorough housecleaning now? Not necessarily. We've also learned this summer that approval ratings for President Obama and the Republican Party are at new lows. As long as Bipolarchy prevails, people may gripe about their Congressman but still refuse to replace him with someone from the hated Other Party. Many Americans are probably disgusted with the whole system -- which may help explain why so many intellectual opinionators are worried about the rise of "authoritarianism" around the world. Their great, if largely unspoken fear may be not so much that foreigners will give up on democracy (not to mention "rule of law," "civil society" and other niceties allegedly antithetical to "authoritarian" government), but that Americans will begin to look to the likes of Vladimir Putin, not just for models of perceived strength or toughness, but for models of effective government. That could happen if Americans prove unable to think outside the Bipolarchy box and end up thinking of "American-style government" only in terms of two-party gridlock. Pollsters could do this country a real service if they asked people what qualifications they'd find acceptable for political candidates who don't belong to the two major parties and thus have no practical experience in legislating or administration. When would you feel confident about voting for someone who isn't a Democrat or Republican? There will probably be no one answer. Since Ross Perot's time many Americans have regarded running a successful business as an eminent qualification, but just as many might see the successful businessman as a profiteer and exploiter. Someone who's been a community activist may repel many who use "community organizer" as a pejorative to describe Obama, denoting someone good at making noise but with no practical, responsible experience, but the same activist may inspire many who feel that Obama has not lived up to their ideal of a "community organizer" in politics. No uprising against Bipolarchy is likely to coalesce around one movement; conflicts between some sort of "left" and "right" will most likely persist. The important thing isn't necessarily to give one big party all the power, but to get voters to believe that an (R) or (D) isn't a prerequisite for elective office. If Americans can't stand the two major parties, yet assume no other entity capable of governing the country, then the American experiment is finished. What would follow wouldn't be a choice between authoritarianism and liberal democracy but, as in the larger world, a choice between authoritarianism and armed anarchy. We might spare ourselves that choice if we renew our faith in real democracy, which is not the rule of parties or of constitutions or of checks and balances but rule by ourselves. If we need the Democratic party and the Republican party to rule us, we're really little better than someone who feels that we need a Putin or some other strong man to rule us. You either believe we can do it ourselves, or you submit to whoever can do it himself. That's the choice Americans face in this generation; they'd better start making up their minds.

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