Does Democracy Work?

By Kit Hayden | Feb 25, 2013
Photo by: Temple of Artemis.  Will we leave even one column behind?

Newcastle — The New York Times recently ran a story on the upcoming elections in Kenya.  These have provoked “vicious ethnic clashes” in a swampy desolate region of the country where the two principal tribes, the Pokomo and Orma have lately been slaughtering each other in the traditional fashion, chopping and hacking with machetes.  Such bursts of violence occur every five years, a period which, coincidentally, is also the election cycle in this “democracy.”  (Perhaps “machete control” will be a referendum topic this time around.)  “Justice has been elusive, politics remain ethnically tinged, and leaders charged with crimes against humanity have a real chance of winning.”  What a tiresome refrain.  Forget the ballot; encourage them to go tribal.  We’ve seen how attempts at democracy have worked in other places, say Rwanda or Sri Lanka.  And then there’s Iraq, where there was some small hope despite the ethnic clashes of Shiite and Soummi, or Afghanistan, where there is no chance whatever for democracy.  As for Kenya, for heaven’s sake don’t let the Carter corps dispatch a cadre of observers to watch helplessly while barrows of ballots are wheeled in from nearby boneyards.  Let it be.

One of the tenets of our federal government’s foreign policy is to “promote democracy throughout the world.”  This, as implied above, is demonstrably a failed policy.  More importantly, we do not lead by example.  Our current government is not characterized by the free flow of ideas and compromise but by constipation.   As all but the penguins of Antarctica know, we are now threatened by “sequester.”  The word has a made-up definition as a noun: “a cut in government spending.”  However, I prefer its normal definition as a verb: “to hide or withdraw into seclusion.”  Think “head in the sand, oblivious to reason, stubborn, irrational.”  Let’s be realistic, democracy doesn’t work anymore in the United States, if it ever did.  It’s only marginally useful elsewhere, with the possible exception of England.  Even in this case I am tempted to say that British democracy is really tribal rule.  I used to so much enjoy watching Tony Blair bating the House of Commons.  Also, rule by the rabble is tempered by the House of Lords which, at least until recently, retained the restraint of aristocracy, the most desirable of regimes.

Democracy, as listed by Plato, is the fourth of five stages as aristocracy degenerates into tyranny.  We started off, here in the Land of the Free, with an approximation of aristocracy which has evolved into a deadlocked democracy.  Will tyranny be next?  I wouldn’t be surprised.  I would maintain that we already have an assortment of mini-tyrannies in the guise of chairman of this or that committee or sub- committee in the House of Reprehensibles.

Consider “Buck” McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee (with a bloated 62 members).  Buck’s been in the House forever, which is why he has risen to such a powerful position (competence is not a consideration for ascendancy-only seniority).  His district contains a large assortment of military units, and so Buck is determined to do nothing about the traditional waste in military spending, mouthing the usual tiresome platitudes about national security (“masking their avarice and arrogance in veils of insubstantial piety”*).  To some degree I forgive him for this.  It is his responsibility to represent his constituency, and that being made up largely of people either directly or indirectly sucking off the federal teat for defense spending, it is his solemn duty to protect their special, selfish interests, rational or not.   I invite you to read the article of Jill Lepore in the January 28 edition of the New Yorker.  Your dentist will appreciate the business generated by the grinding of your teeth.

Our president recently admitted that he is helpless in the face of sequester: “There is nothing I can do to get these folks to come to the table with a balanced approach.”  So the latest gambit is a government insider lobbying group funded by oligarchs.  Accompanying this is the usual fright factor.  “We’re going to lay off all our air traffic control officers and most of the TSA employees.”   So it will take me three days to fly from Boston to Washington?  Good! I hope I never get there.  Doesn’t this remind you of small town politics when property taxes “need” to be increased?  “If we don’t move in this direction we’ll have to cut back on police and fire protection” and blah, blah, blah.

Last weekend I attended the movie Lincoln for the second time, largely in the interest of my title here.  The main subject is the passage of the 13th amendment that ended slavery.  Previously the president had justified his Emancipation Proclamation, on somewhat flimsy legal grounds, and now he wanted to end slavery permanently.  His success is presented as a fine hour for democracy.  Hardly. To accomplish his end he had to use the usual tools of politics: bribery, coercion, dissembling, and also the postponement of the Southern surrender to end the Civil War.  By the last many additional lives were lost, unnecessarily.  The amendment would have passed eventually, perhaps even avoiding the many difficulties of Reconstruction.   Better that Lincoln might have ended slavery by fiat (executive order?) much like the Emancipation Proclamation and sooner terminated the bloody war.

How much worse the situation for democracy now with a government of unconscionable size and complication, our capitol city an armed encampment; a leadership out-of-touch with the citizenry, uncompromising, and dysfunctional.

What can we do?  Clearly we should eliminate at least half the federal agencies, perhaps by lottery.  We must find a way to avoid politicians-for-life.  Or maybe we should do without government altogether.  Belgium went 19 months without one due to the bickering tribes of Flemish and Walloons.  They seem to have muddled through.  Italy never has had a proper government, and yet somehow they seem to be among the happiest of nations.  I think I’m ready for the sequester.


* From Artemission, a poem by unknown (to me) author


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