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Monday, Nov. 27, 2006

THE VIEW FROM NEW YORK

U.S. democracy isn't a suitable export


NEW YORK -- The cover of The New Yorker the week after the Nov. 7 midterm elections showed a giant elephant statue being toppled, with people in the lawn way below jubilant and the White House beyond with the U.S. flag atop it at half mast.

Mark Ulriksen, who painted the cover, no doubt had in mind the toppling of the Saddam Hussein statue in Baghdad's Fardus Square on April 9, 2003. As in the cover picture, a rope hung from Hussein's neck as a wire looped around it pulled his statue forward. Beyond it there was even an imposing onion-domed building, suggestive of something comparable to the White House.

Ulriksen's picture was clear in its design, but it was ironic as well. The clear part was, of course, Democrats' recapture of both chambers of Congress that they'd lost in 1994, thereby taking at least one branch of government out of the clutches of the Republican Party. This was a relief to those Americans who have lived with the frustration that their government lost its "checks and balances" function after 2000. That year, the Republican Party took the executive branch through a questionable, unseemly intervention of the Republican appointees on the Supreme Court.

The ironic part was that the toppling of the Hussein likeness, though Donald Rumsfeld, the former U.S. defense secretary, blithely called it "breathtaking," was in truth "the most stage-managed photo-opportunity since Iwo Jima," as Robert Fisk calls it in the massive compilation of his reportage from the Middle East over the last 30 years, sardonically titled "The Great War for Civilisation" (Knopf, 2005).

The "fraudulent scene" that marked for the American occupiers the day of "liberation" was created by a fraudulent war that is the disaster that it has become or, more accurately, was destined to become.

The irony goes deeper. Fisk, who "stood behind the first (Iraqi) man to seize a hatchet and smash at the imposing grey marble plinth" that supported the Hussein statue, saw "within seconds" that the marble was slapped on "a foundation of cheap bricks and badly cracked cement."

Even so, the Iraqis couldn't pull down the statue with the rope and pick-axes they brought. The Americans with their technology had to help them. They used an armored personnel carrier and a wire to topple the statue.

It may be redundant to add that it was none other than the United States that provided Hussein with economic and political aid, helping him become the dictator that he did. Rumsfeld was, in the early 1980s, part of that effort.

I don't know, of course, whether Ulriksen meant to convey that irony with his painting. But the toppling of the Republican Party, at least in Congress, that he depicted has reminded me once again that there is little to brag about democracy as practiced in the U.S., as there is little reason for the country to try to promote it in less enlightened parts of the world. One of President George W. Bush's shifting reasons for the war in Iraq has been, it may be recalled, promotion of democracy in the Middle East.

What is democracy in America like?

One distressing factor in American politics for the last dozen years is the dismaying partisanship Republicans have insisted on. They persecuted Democratic President Bill Clinton shamelessly. I remember attending a session with three foreign reporters that the Council on Foreign Relations convened to learn what foreign countries thought of the congressional rumpus over Clinton's sexual dallying. The three reporters were unanimous: Their compatriots thought Clinton's transgression was nothing to be so worked up about and that Congress's agitation over it was puerile and prurient, an embarrassment unworthy of the U.S.

The same Republican Congress made an about-face when one of their own was installed as president and completely abnegated oversight, "the ability and the will of Congress to enforce its intent," to quote Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd in his book, "Losing America" (Norton, 2004). Even when it was proved beyond reasonable doubt that the cause for the war Bush had started with cowboy bombast and glee was faked, they didn't raise a finger, let alone take steps for impeachment.

No wonder they didn't even peep when Hurricane Katrina proved Byrd deadly right. Early on he had found Bush not just "green and arrogant," but "ineptitude supreme." Such partisan aggressiveness and subservience is possible because of the winner-takes-all system that is one feature of America's vaunted democracy.

In Congress it extends not only to committee assignments where the majority party takes all the chairmanships, but also to office space, all the "spacious digs," as Byrd puts it, "the ones with the glorious vistas of sunsets to the west, and the bathrooms." That's right: the offices for the minority party don't even have bathrooms. In the executive branch, the president acts as king of patronage. The last time I saw the figure, he had the power to fire and hire 6,000 people.

Strenuous partisanship, though not always indulged in, is just one flaw of democracy as practiced in America. There is the Electoral College which, in the 2000 presidential election, turned American talk of democracy into a sham in the eyes of the world.

There are other undemocratic features, but let's look at the oddity that is the senatorial election. Following the latest elections, one senator called the 51-49 margin in the new Senate makeup "razor-thin." That is absolutely true, but as Hendrik Hertzberg, the lead commentator for The New Yorker, pointed out, it did not reflect what actually happened.

Every state is entitled to elect two senators. This means that each senator from Wyoming with its population of 487,000, for example, represents less than a quarter million people, whereas each senator from California with its population of 34,651,000 represents more than 17 million. This is surely undemocratic. Such a discrepancy may not often occur in overall results. Still, this year, with 33 senators in two-thirds of the states up for election, Democrats outvoted Republicans by 7.3 million or 12.6 percentage points. Not exactly razor-thin.

Many Americans hold the U.S. Constitution to be sacrosanct, believing that it provides the foundation for American democracy. But in "How Democratic Is the American Constitution?" (Yale, 2001) Yale professor of political science Robert Dahl says it is "not suitable for export to other countries." I think he is right.

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist who lives in New York.


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