Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Democracy woes

There's quite a bit of anger at Washington these days. The citizenry appears to be up in arms and the voices getting the most media play are those associated with the libertarian-leaning Tea Party movement. After President Obama was able to get a stimulus package passed by Congress a year ago, everything seems to have ground to a halt. Have we come to a point where the structures of government have completely failed?

First, it's important to remember that all of this is nothing new. Mark Twain, writing in the late 19th century, took frequent shots at Congress -- "Fleas can be taught nearly anything that a Congressman can," and Congressmen are "the smallest minds and the selfishest souls and the cowardliest hearts that God makes," and "there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress."

Going back further, the nation was so divided by 1861 that more than one-third of the states opted out of the union, resulting in the Civil War. Go back more than two centuries -- when the Founding Fathers were still running the show -- and there were political games, savage personal attacks and governmental dysfunction. Don't forget that Aaron Burr, then the sitting vice president, shot and killed Alexander Hamilton (and was indicted for murder in two states) in a duel precipitated by attacks on Burr's character and politics.

The country has always had its political tensions, its unhealable divisions, its calculating demagogues, its divisive leaders, its obstructionist blocs, its fringe elements, its existential threats. The names and faces have changed -- as have the speed and breadth of communication channels -- but the machinations of those in elected office and the fickleness, and sometimes foolishness, of the general public remain intact.

While no one is happy that the nation's unemployment rate is hovering close to double-digits, a look at the dramatic slowing of job losses in the past year would seem to indicate that Obama's economic policies are on the right track, yet polls show people increasingly unhappy with the president. The mainstream media allows the discussion to be dominated by cranks like Sarah Palin, who seems absolutely incapable of rendering even a single truth constructed as a complete sentence, and Dick Cheney, who is clearly wishing, hoping and praying for a massive terrorist attack on American soil so he can say that he told us so. (Oh, and what was his job during the last massive terrorist attack on American soil?)

As for what the people want -- Who can tell? I agree with a recent piece in The New Yorker by James Surowiecki, which says:
...this new populism has stitched together incompatible concerns and goals into one “I’m mad as hell” quilt. The people may have spoken. It’s just not clear that they’re making any sense.

1 comment:

N.starluna said...

Democracy is only as good as the people who participate.

In one of my student's recent assignments, they had to do interviews on a political issue. In one of the papers, the student writes about the opinion of one person who felt that Obama's election was not valid because a whole bunch of people who "never voted before" voted for him.

This is not just an example of silly rationalizing. The underlying attitude is emblematic of the whole Tea Party/ "I want my country back" reaction to Obama's election. Apparently, democracy is scary for some people.

Unfortunately, the lesson of Obama's election, that people who make the effort to participate actually can have influence, has not been applied to our elected officials in Congress, in our state legislatures, or at the local level, except apparently by the Tea Party people.

In the same assignment, most of my students find that most people only participate in presidential elections because they believe that is the most important political office. And yet it was Congress who cut the budgets for community policy programs. It was the state Legislature that changed how interim senators are selected. As far as I can tell, Obama has nothing to do with why Eastie only has 1 day a week trash pickup.

I don't think you can entirely blame the mainstream media though. Three-quarters of my students cannot name the three branches of government on the first day of class. Most people are afraid to talk about politics, apparently out of fear of being seen to have an opinion about something other than American Idol. Even fewer bother to find out who their elected officials even are. The question shouldn't be about what democracy can do, but what we can do to make this a better democracy.