Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Twilight of Democracy

Back when I was a political scientist in the late 1970s, I read an article by someone who suggested an analogy between constitutional monarchy and constitutional democracy. He argued that the former was a successful, 19th-century institution which works well in places where it is already well established and where it resonates with the country's culture, but which should not be expected to spread and take root elsewhere. By analogy, he argued something similar for 20th-century constitutional democracy, a system successfully well established in certain countries where it resonates with their history and culture, but which should not be expected to spread and take root elsewhere.

At the time, I was somewhat taken with this theory. Then history happened. Among other things the Soviet Empire collapsed, and constitutional democracy seemed to be spreading all over the place. Some (President George W. Bush and many neo-conservatives, for example) even thought it might take root in the Arab middle east - of all unlikely places! Then history happened again, and constitutional democracy largely retreated to its western cultural homeland. But there too it is increasingly troubled. The modern neo-Roman empire that is the EU, widely faulted for its "deficit" of democracy, has by its arrogant over-reach and its other manifest failures inspired a powerful populist reaction, that may yet salvage European nation states and even many of the institutions of the modern welfare state but may not be so solicitous for constitutional democracy as hitherto understood. Even more surprisingly, something analogous seems maybe to be happening in the Untied States.

The framers of the US constitution were well educated in the classics and understood very well how fragile constitutional democracy would be. They knew how fragile and short-lived both its ancient and early modern antecedents had been. That they created a system so resilient that it could survive the multiple stresses of the next two centuries (including a four-year civil war) was quite an accomplishment. Given their understanding of human nature and of history, they might well be surprised by their system's resilience, but perhaps less surprised by the forces that increasingly threaten it.

Fundamentally, a constitutional democracy requires citizens, socialized by society to undertake serious public-oriented responsibilities in the civic spirit which citizenship requires. (Citizen, as President Obama wisely reminded us in his Farewell Address, is "the most important office in a democracy.") Capitalism, in contrast, creates consumers, not citizens; and consumerism can be considered the very antithesis of citizenship as classically understood.  

The process of deforming American society into a fundamentally apolitical, individualistic, consumerist society has been going on for a long time, but has accelerated wildly in recent decades. 

As Alexis deTocqueville famously observed early in the 19th-century, a fortuitous mix of social and cultural factors have historically worked together to mitigate this process in the United States, notably among them the role of religion in American society. In the 20th century, the Second World War, with the almost universally shared national commitment it inspired and common experience of sacrifice at home and military service abroad, fostered a strong civic spirit among the so-called "Greatest Generation." That civic spirit made possible perhaps the most successful period in American history, which can now be recalled only with nostalgia. Compare, for example, President John F. Kennedy's 1961 Inaugural Address with President Donald J. Trump's in 2017.

As for religion, the durability and strength of which DeTocqueville and other admirers of American exceptionalism have lauded, it too is in flux in post-modern, 21st-century America. Certainly vibrant religious communities and institutions still survive in the United States as a viable alternative to European-style secularization. But, as the 2016 election dramatically demonstrated, too much of what passes for religion in the United States has increasingly subordinated itself to demagogic partisan politics. As Russell D, Moore, of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, recently observed, “The religious right turned out to be the people the religious right warned us about.” His election-year challenge “to dethrone politics as a religion and as a source of identity while at the same time remaining engaged in our responsibilities as citizens,” clearly went unheard and its implicit warning unheeded.

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