American democracy is going through one of its periodic bouts of self-loathing. The public disapproves of the performance of all the branches of government, even the Supreme Court. Approval ratings for Congress are so low it is tempting to wonder about the sanity of the small number of people who still express confidence in it. The recent shutdown in Washington provoked a furious round of critical commentary from academics and pundits across the political spectrum. There is near unanimity: This is no way to run a government.
These recent travails have also provided plenty of material for commentators who see in every setback evidence of a broader decline. The historian Niall Ferguson has been predicting the unwinding of American power and influence for more than a decade. In the last few years, his warnings have gathered pace: Every time America’s politicians lumber into another hole, Ferguson says I told you so. Even onetime optimists like Thomas Friedman, of The New York Times, are undergoing a crisis of faith.
Yet there is nothing new about this outburst of disgust with the workings of democracy. Nor is it distinctively American. Europeans (with the possible exception of Germans) are just as disenchanted with their elected politicians. Lamenting the failings of democracy is a permanent feature of democratic life, one that persists through governmental crises and successes alike.
There is no decade from the past century when it is not possible to find an extended debate among commentators and intellectuals in the democratic West about the inadequacies of democratic politics. This is not true of only those decades when Western democracy was clearly on the ropes, like the 1930s, when it was menaced by fascism, or the 1970s, when it was threatened by inflation and oil shock. It’s also true of the prosperous and relatively stable decades as well. In the 1920s, Walter Lippmann led the charge, arguing that democratic publics were far too ill-informed and inattentive to manage their own affairs. In the 1950s, academics worried about the banality and exhaustion of democratic life. Daniel Bell took a positive stance with his claims about the end of ideology, but for the most part democracy was treated as a cumbersome, careless system of government, in permanent danger of being outwitted by the Soviets.
The history of modern democracy is a tale of steady success accompanied by the constant drumbeat of anticipated failure.
Even the 1980s, which we now look back on as a time of emergent democratic triumphalism, were dominated by prophecies of doom. Consider the two best-selling academic books from the end of that decade. One, Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987), argued that the endemic triviality of mass democracy would destroy the minds of the young, leaving them unable to distinguish good from bad. (Bloom blamed, among other people, Mick Jagger.) The second, Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1988), foretold American decline as the demands of sustaining a global empire would overwhelm the capacity of the American people to put up with them.
The history of modern democracy is a tale of steady success accompanied by the constant drumbeat of anticipated failure. The intellectual commentator who first spotted this distinctive feature of democratic life (and who did most to explain it) was Alexis de Tocqueville. When he traveled to America, in 1831, Tocqueville was immediately struck by the frenetic and mindless quality of democratic politics. Citizens were always complaining, and their politicians were endlessly throwing mud at one another. The grumbling discontent was frequently interrupted by bursts of outright panic as resentments spilled over.
Yet Tocqueville noticed something else about American democracy: that underneath the chaotic surface, it was quite stable. Citizens’ discontent coincided with an underlying faith that democratic politics would see them right in the end.
A political system like this creates plenty of space for writers and intellectuals to tut-tut and throw up their hands in horror. Why? First, and most obviously, democratic politics entails free speech, which must include the freedom to say that democracy doesn’t work. Second, democracy is, as Tocqueville put it, an “untimely” form of government. Its strengths are revealed only in the long run, once its restless energy produces the adaptability that allows it to correct its own mistakes. At any given moment, democracy tends to look a mess: shallow, petty, and vituperative. Democracies are bad at rising to the occasion. What they are good at is chopping and changing course so that no occasion is too much for them. Finally, rationalist modern intellectuals are inherently suspicious of blind political faith. It is unnerving to encounter a political system that works only because ordinary people believe that it works. Ordinary citizens get frustrated with the workings of democracy but rarely, if ever, give up on it. The people who tend to lose faith are intellectuals who can’t reconcile themselves to the mismatch between the glorious promise of democratic life and its grubby reality.
Adapted from http://www.chronicle.com/article/Democracys-Dual-Dangers/142971/