karl-henrik pettersson

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Filosofiska tankar om företagande och ekonomi

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Notes on a society in crisis (18): Democratization has gone too far?

On April 1st 2012, my book,”Dagbok från USA”, came out in Sweden. It will also soon be published in English (as an e-book for Kindle and for other readers) with the title: “Diary from the United States – Notes on a society in crisis“. As an appetizer for English speaking readers, I will the coming weeks publish some excerpts from the book.

U.S. Congress: “…a collection of 535 independent political entrepreneurs who run the system with their individual interests uppermost.” (Fareed Zakaria)

There are plenty of indications that something is wrong with American politics. At the beginning of the 1960s, the vast majority of Americans – more than 70% – agreed with the statement: “One can trust that Washington always, or usually, will do the right thing.” Ten years ago, early in the last decade, that number had more than halved, to 30%. Even if it went up after 9/11, it fell back quickly thereafter, and in spring 2011 it’s still around 30%. There are lots of studies pointing in the same direction. Robert D. Putnam, professor of political policy at Harvard and perhaps best known for his book Bowling Alone, noted in an extensive study that the involvement in political and social affairs in the U.S. has declined by 40% since the mid-1960s.

Why this general distrust of Washington and the political system? Fareed Zakaria suggests that democracy, or rather democratization, has gone too far (Fareed Zakaria has a doctorate in political science from Harvard, is a former managing editor of Foreign Affairs, and today best known as a prominent journalist at Time Magazine and CNN. According to Forbes, he is “… one of the 25 most influential liberals in an American media”). In his book The Future of Freedom he writes:

So what has made the system decline? The timing of the shift in public trust is an important clue. Why do public attitudes turn around the middle 1960s and keep sinking? One big change began during this period and has continued unabated: the democratization of politics …What has changed in Washington is not that the politicians have closed themselves off from the American people, and are unwilling to hear their pleas. It is that they do scarcely anything but listen to the American people.

The only consolation in this sad spectacle, he writes, is that the more political “accommodation” and servile attitude from the politicians we get, the more the general public’s respect for politicians declines. During the Second World War, Winston Churchill was advised by a colleague in the parliament to “keep his ear to the ground”. He responded by pointing out that “the British nation will find it very hard to look up to leaders who are detected in that position.” The American people have seen their leaders bowing and scraping for the past three decades, and they are repulsed by it. Perhaps they sense that this is not what democracy is all about, writes Zakaria.

Fareed Zakaria’s analysis is probably correct. The political party, and that goes for both Republicans and Democrats, has increasingly become a facade, an “empty shell” with no real importance. It’s significant because the political program of a party is a kind of holistic approach to society and its problems, and it tells something important about what the party wants to achieve. If party discipline weakens, and that is what apparently has happened, politicians may find it more difficult to make intelligent long-term decisions, and they may become more vulnerable to populism. The U.S. Congress has also become more fragmented. A few decades ago the work in Congress was guided by a group of “strong men” (it’s almost always men) in the two dominant parties. This model has broken up and today Congress is, writes Zakaria, “… a collection of 535 independent political entrepreneurs who run the system with their individual interests uppermost – i.e., to be re-elected. By any measures – bills, amendments, and suspension bills – the system is far more responsive to each individual member’s whim. It’s also far more responsive to nonmembers.”

Referendums have become an instrument that some states increasingly use to try to please their citizens, and sometimes with disastrous consequences for politics and administration. The concrete example is California. It’s said that California’s congress and governor control only about 15% of the budget. The remaining 85% is earmarked funding where the elected politicians have no real influence. “California has produced a political system that is as close to anarchy as any civilized society has seen.”

This model is open to influence from interest groups of various kinds. It’s no coincidence that the number of registered lobbyists in Washington has increased from 5 000 in the 1950s to somewhere around 35 000 today (Washington Post leaves the exact figure open, somewhere between 30 and 35 000). Interest groups of different kinds have made the U.S. government dysfunctional, Zakaria explains. It has become almost impossible for government to get enough funding, and it’s harder and harder to come to a decision on issues crucial for the country. When government does not seem to get its priorities right, people lose faith.

Extensive lobbying has another undesirable consequence – Washington is being polarized. Pundits of various kinds – lobbyists, commentators, activists, ideologues, people working with pollsters, etc. – dominate it. It becomes much more difficult to achieve settlements and compromises across party lines. Zakaria thinks that the political system today prefers blocking instead of settlements because it’s better for cash collection. The difficulty in agreeing on a plan for handling the U.S. national debt is a concrete and recent example.

Two strong legs and one injured

It’s often said that the success of liberal democracy rests on three pillars – 1) constitutional liberalism (rule of law, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, etc.), 2) capitalism, and 3) democracy. From that perspective, one might say about America that it’s a country that has “two strong legs and one injured”. The American rule of law is strong, and the liberal freedoms are as intact as they are in other Western countries. There are some peculiarities in the U.S. legal system which likely cost the society more than it “give back” (such as the propensity to sue), but there’s hardly more widespread corruption in the U.S. than for example in Europe. And American capitalism is very competitive.

The third leg, democracy, is the weak link according to Fareed Zakaria. He isn’t alone in his belief. Francis Fukuyama (author of the celebrated work, The End of History) feels apparently much the same. And so do many others. For my part, I’m convinced that Zakaria is right. The hypothesis that democracy’s desire to please people, and its counterpart, the unwillingness between elections to take on political leadership that is not slavishly listening to what the lobbyists and the media think, explains better than anything that I have read why the political system in the United States is dysfunctional.

Literature:

Zakaria, F., 2007, The Future of Freedom, W. W. Norton & Company, New York;

 

First published (in Swedish): June 21, 2011

 

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2012-11-08

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