Democracy’s reputation has taken quite a beating over the past eight years. It began with the chaotic situation in
Following his tainted victory, Bush then proceeded to lay bare the underlying fragility of our democratic system during war time, as our elected officials abdicated their responsibility and silently rubber-stamped Bush’s “imperial presidency” agenda. Americans found themselves in the strange position of watching their beloved democracy invade another country without provocation and torture its prisoners, bringing into question the ability of our system to push back against power-hungry leaders.
And now the failure of the financial rescue package in the House of Representatives has revealed yet another weakness of our democratic system, which is strangely opposite from the previous problem of Bush’s “imperial presidency.” This weakness I’ll call the “vacuum presidency,” combined with a healthy dose of “the tyranny of the uninformed majority.” When there is no leadership at the top (in this case because of Bush’s lame duck status combined with rock bottom approval ratings), then the power of government really does shift to “the people.” Congressmen who are worried about re-election don’t have the political cover they need to make unpopular decisions. They must, therefore, bow to the will of the majority of their constituents, who in this case are not well-informed enough to understand the consequences of passing or not passing the $700 billion “bailout” bill. The problem here is not, as many of us “elites” like to lament, the “ignorance of the electorate.” This ignorance is to be expected, especially considering the complexity of our current crisis. That expected ignorance is why we elect politicians in the first place—so they can represent us and make the tough decisions that need to be a made, based on what is best for the country. But with a Bush presidency power vacuum, Congress cannot think of “country first,” only “re-election first.”
So now we have a situation in which a group of ideological free-market zealots have teamed up with a group of lawmakers from both parties worried about re-election to kill a much-needed bill that is fundamentally misunderstood by the public. This bill is not a “bailout.” The government is buying assets that have the potential to increase in value. Congress is not writing a $700 billion check to Wall St. The degree to which the $700 billion ends up being a bailout depends upon the price the government pays for these assets.
As I listened to the press conference before the bill came to a vote on the floor of the House, I felt extremely proud to be represented by Nancy Pelosi, Barney Frank, Christopher Dodd, and Harry Reid. All four of these Democratic Party leaders are supremely intelligent and patriotic Americans. For the first time in a long while I thought to myself: “if this bill is good enough for these fine leaders, then it is certainly good enough for me.” It is a shame that more Americans don’t feel that way about those who govern our country. There are plenty of blameworthy explanations for this lack of faith in our leaders: corruption in government, partisan gridlock, Bush Administration incompetence, and a culture of distrust of “elites” and “intellectuals.” Whatever the cause, our democracy took another hit this week.
I wouldn’t be surprised if “illiberal democracies” such as China and Russia continued their resurgence—not only in terms of their relative power in the world, but also in terms of the reputation of their authoritarian brand of government, as our brand of democracy, in the eyes of the rest of the world, becomes more suspect by the day.