Monday, June 23, 2008

The End of America: Where the Real Danger Lies

As I have discussed before, I believe Naomi Wolf's book, The End of America seriously exaggerates the dictatorial features of the Bush Administration and the danger it poses to our democracy. But I do believe the danger exists, even if it is more subtle than Wolf implies.

If Wolf intends to discuss how democracies fail, her focus on how dictatorships consolidate their power is, at most, only half the story. The downfall of democracy began in Germany well before Hitler was named chancellor; it began in Italy well before Mussolini's march on Rome; in Spain well before Franco's revolt; in Czechoslovakia well before the Communist takeover; in Chile well before the 1973 coup, and so forth. Democracy began to fail in all cases when a certain critical mass of participants stopped accepting democratic rules of fairplay and began working in ways that undermined democratic government. Any discussion of how democracies fail, and certainly any argument that we are in danger of becoming a failed democracy, has to begin there.

Wolf correctly points out (p. 25) that the Founders did not consider democracy to be something easy or natural, but something inherently fragile and in danger of failing. Mature democracy has proven a whole lot more stable and resilient than they anticipated; so stable and resilient that most Americans have forgotten just how odd and unnatural democratic habits can be. As I have said before:
Democracy . . . values procedure over substance. It demands obedience to leaders who are chosen by the right procedure (i.e, who win the election), regardless of how loathsome their values or policies may be to us. It expects us to treat abstract procedural details, such as federalism or separation of powers, as more important than the actual merits of what policy to adopt. It insists that we respect the rights of people we despise (sometimes deservedly). . . . These are not easy rules to swallow.
Democracy also requires a remarkable degree of good sportsmanship. It requires being a good loser when an election does not go the way one wishes; never an easy skill to master. It also requires good sportsmanship by the winners, and what fun is that. It requires, in short, a system in which the minority yields to will of the majority and the majority respects the rights of the minority. This is unlikely to be either group's first choice. It helps if all participants know that they will be in the minority sometimes (and on some issues) and in the majority other times. But it is not always easy or natural to take so long a view. And the problems of permanent minorities (usually ethnic or religious) can be extremely thorny, as our own history makes shamefully clear.

The failure of democracy begins when participants within the democratic system stop abiding by the rules. It begins when minorities stop yielding to the will of majorities or majorities respecting the rights of minorities. It begins when winning becomes everything and the end is seen to justify the means. It begins, in short, when enough people stop obeying democratic rules of fair play that those rules stop working.

So, while it is a gross exageration to accuse the Bush Administration of being a dictatorship (even a mild dictatorship in the early stages of consolidating power), I do believe it is legitimate to ask whether the Republican Party is giving up on the rules of democratic fair play. And the answer, I believe, is yes, much of the Republican Party is showing disturbing signs of an anti-democratic tendancy. Though not as much noticed, I believe there are two anti-democratic strands in the Republican Party in general and the Bush Administration in particular. One is what I would call the Rovian strand; the other I would call the Cheney or national security strand.

Coming up next: The Rovian strand.

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