The Trouble With Democracy?

That’s the rather provocative issue addressed in this Guardian article which explores the present malaise of liberal democracy in terms of the historical persistence of scepticism about its long term viability:

It has been a bad few months for western democracy. Over the summer we discovered that while democratic citizens and their elected politicians were going about their everyday business, the secret services were routinely eavesdropping on everything they did. It was bad enough to suppose that the politicians were conniving in this. More disturbing was the thought that even the politicians were being kept in the dark about what was going on. Then, in September, we had the spectacle of western leaders trying to take a lead on Syria, only to be stymied by their legislatures, which wouldn’t let them do anything (the British parliament didn’t express a decisive view, not even against the use of force; it simply rejected all the options put to it, like a sulky child). Principled positions on both sides of the argument got lost in the fog of partisan politicking. As Obama, Cameron and Hollande floundered around looking for a workable policy on Assad’s chemical arsenal, Putin stepped in at the last moment to save the day. It was a humiliation he compounded with a crowing article in the New York Times that highlighted the advantages of mature statesmanship over democratic skittishness. Then things got worse. For 17 days in October the US government ceased to function altogether, while bitter infighting in Washington took the country to the brink of a disastrous default. The sight of American politicians playing their absurd game of chicken with the global economy left the rest of the world with conflicted emotions, ranging from despair to barely concealed glee. Putin smirked. The Chinese tut-tutted. Bureaucrats in Brussels gave a world-weary sigh. Politicians who do not have to worry about getting re-elected or who face only docile and compliant parliaments found themselves looking on with a mixture of pity and contempt. Imagine trying to do serious politics under the relentless pressure of eternal democratic squabbling, with barely enough time to breathe, let alone to think straight. Is it any way to run a government?

This pattern has repeated itself throughout the following century. In the early 1930s, at the height of the great depression, dictator envy was rife. It was widely assumed that western democracy would only survive if it took a leaf out of the dictators’ book. Stalin, Mussolini and Hitler looked like the men of action who could take the tough decisions needed to stave off disaster (Mussolini was particularly admired in this period for his hackneyed ability to get the trains to run on time). Elected politicians looked like miserable pygmies by comparison; too frightened of their electorates to take charge and too hamstrung by their parliaments to change course. But Franklin Roosevelt showed that this analysis was wrong. He was a notoriously changeable politician, never quite sure what he was doing or what he believed in but willing to try most things on the off chance they might work. Throughout his long presidency there were regular predictions of impending disaster: either the country would be ruined or Roosevelt would turn out to be a dictator after all. Neither came to pass: under Roosevelt’s chaotic but resourceful leadership the country muddled through. It was the dictatorships that fell apart in the end. Barack Obama is no FDR, but the criticism he faces takes the same form. Some accuse him of being a dictator; others of being an inveterate ditherer. The truth is that he is neither. He is just a democratic politician doing his best to improvise a way out. During the cold war there was barely a moment when commentators in the west didn’t worry that the fight was being lost because the Russians were so much more ruthless than we were. Elected politicians were too busy fretting about getting re-elected to devise a coherent strategy for ultimate victory. They kept missing their chance. This fear persisted through the 1980s, even as the cold war was finally being won. In the Reagan White House, full of gung-ho cold warriors, the book everyone read (according to speechwriter Peggy Noonan) was How Democracies Perish, by a gloomy, pretentious French intellectual called Jean-François Revel. Like everyone else, Revel had spotted that the Soviet system was in deep trouble: communism didn’t work. Still he argued that it would drag western democracy down into the grave with it because the democracies were too indecisive for the brutal politics of the endgame. When the Soviet Union fell apart, the west would not know how to take advantage. The endless distractions of democratic politics would get in the way. So the hard-headed tyrants in the Kremlin, with nothing to lose, would run rings round us. Once it came to the crunch, democracy would fail to rise to the occasion. FILE PHOTO: 50 Years Since East German Troops Sealed The Border Between East And West Berlin The fall of the Berlin war. Photograph: Tom Stoddart Archive/Hulton Archive http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/nov/08/trouble-with-democracy-david-runciman


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