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Thursday, Oct. 25, 2012

High price of U.S. democracy

Special to The Japan Times

HONG KONG — Watching the debates between U.S. President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Gov. Mitt Romney was a profoundly depressing experience, not least because the two contenders not only talked past each other, but played fast and loose with important facts. If this is democracy in action, then it is deeply flawed.

Both candidates displayed a touching belief in the inherent superiority of the United States. What about democracy for the world? Romney behaved as if, as president, he would have superhuman magical powers to create millions new jobs; to remove the debts and deficit while increasing military spending by trillions of dollars; to stop Iran getting nuclear weapons; to change the Assad regime in Syria without putting U.S. boots on the ground; to transform radical Islamists into peace-loving promoters of the role of women. Obama could have told him that much of the world does not like Americans, less still their belief that they are God's anointed guardian angel for the world.

It is time for the U.S. in particular and for the Western world in general, plus Japan, to start asking questions about whether their democracy is really democratic. This is particularly important with the rise of China, both economically and politically, at a time when the world is becoming a more tense and dangerous place.

China of course offers a contrast. The two most powerful countries on Earth will choose their top leaders next month, but what a difference in the way of choosing: In the U.S., open, public razzmatazz, the election in the hands of the people, and even now with days to go, who knows whom they will choose; in China, intense politicking and backstabbing behind closed doors, and the result is already known without the mess of public participation.

Chinese commentators have made great play with the fact that democracy — in the sense of one person, one vote — came late to the U.S., as indeed to the whole of the self-proclaimed "democratic" world.

Does true democracy have to include elections? Yes, as a necessary condition to make the people feel that they have a role to play. In China, one professor recently declared that there was not sufficient theory to support democracy. Who does he think he is? There have been hundreds of years of philosophical debate. In addition, if you want practical examples of the value of democracy, you have only to look to India, whose people have demonstrated the importance of their commonsense in calling governments to account.

In defense of the Western concept of democracy, even in the dark days of the 18th century when the vote in Britain was limited to householders with a certain value of property, there were lively public hustings at which the plebs got to shout and throw rotten fruit, while the aristocrats did their dirty corrupt deals behind the scenes.

One problem with modern elections is that they cost too much, especially in the U.S. The latest estimate is that almost $6 billion will be spent on the presidential and congressional elections, yet another record.

The biggest donors are corporations. It would be naive to think they contribute for the public good. Critics claim that Obama was too kind to the big banksters after the financial crisis because big financial groups gave handsome contributions to his campaign. Financial and business groups can be fickle, as Obama is already discovering. Romney has become the darling of the big financial groups, collecting $40 million from them, against less than $15 million given to Obama.

America needs to be careful about the dangerous influence of money. The cost of fighting elections means that successful members of Congress are rich but also correspondingly vulnerable to money politics. According to The Washington Post, the median net worth of members of congress rose by 5 percent during the recession, while ordinary Americans experienced a fall of 39 percent. By 2010 the median net worth of members of the House of Representatives was $746,000, and for senators it was a whopping $2.6 million.

Money is not the only disease affecting U.S. democracy. Voters, courted during the campaign, have virtually no say once the election is over. For a true democracy, elections are necessary, but are not sufficient. There is no check to see whether the elected politicians fulfill their promises.

Between elections, Western democracy in general and U.S. democracy in particular are failing. Political theory is that elected politicians are there as the representatives of the people. British parliamentarian Edmund Burke expressed the duties of an elected representative with great clarity and eloquence in 1774, proclaiming that a member of Parliament must not sacrifice "his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience ... to any man or set of men living. ... They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion."

How high-minded: Too often modern congressmen are slaves to their parties or to the people who funded their election. You can see this every day on the floor of the U.S. Congress, where partisanship and polarization are rampant — worse than at any time in the past 25 years according to Pew Research. Again, Burke is worth quoting, particularly to remind U.S. — and Japanese — representatives as to why they were elected.

He asserted: "Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; ... but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but, the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole. You choose a member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not member of Bristol, but he is a member of Parliament."

As a journalist for more than 40 years, I lament that the press has, with a few honorable exceptions, lost its way as watchdog and asker of the difficult questions to keep princes, presidents and politicians up to the mark. In some places the press is supine or has been cowed by government. In others, including India, the mainstream national press has gone all gooey-eyed over starlets and chases trivia. In Britain, the press manages both to chase trivia and to fall in love with its own power.

Especially dangerously, too few newspapers and fewer parliaments have a proper sense or understanding of their own place in the world. This is true of smaller countries like Britain and Japan. But it is dangerously true too of the U.S., where politicians of all parties regard the country has having been given a special God-given mission. Beijing for its part does not care about God or, increasingly, about the good opinions of the outside world. Sadly too, some leading lunatic Japanese politicians seem determined to provoke China. Was it part of any election manifesto? And who will be brave enough to call them to account?

All this makes it difficult to work out a consistent policy that is also realistic and realizable that might help make the world a safer place. The bottom line as America prepares to vote and China works out who will join Xi round its ruling table is that the world is becoming a more dangerous place and Western-style democracy has a high price.

Kevin Rafferty is editor in chief of PlainWords Media.

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