Monday, March 12, 2007

Democracy: Has politics become war by other means?

Have we become so polarized in this country that politics has become war by other means? Or is it the other way around? The way we practice politics contributes to polarization.

This blog has discussed the shortcomings of the U.S. constitution, the reluctance of many Americans to share their rights other Americans, measuring the United States with a democratic yardstick, and the myth of democracy in the United States. This writer believes that democracy as practiced in this country has serious shortcomings, not only structurally but also culturally. Our national government is put in place through an incredible Rube Goldberg electoral system, which is bad enough, but the clunky electoral system is then corrupted by money. And public debate about serious issues is frequently almost childlike in its lack of sophistication – e.g., debate about American policy regarding the civil war in Iraq usually degenerates into arguments about “supporting the troops.” American democracy is a work in progress needing attention that unfortunately is seen by many as a finished product.

Ronald Dworkin believes that while we go through the motions of practicing democratic procedures, the foundations are very shaky. Here are his thoughts from the Guardian:
Democracy doesn't mean just majority rule. There is no intrinsic value in the bare fact that more people favour one particular party or policy than another. Democracy is a value worth fighting for - it makes power legitimate - only when it means government through the majority on behalf of and for all the citizens. …

These conditions can easily be set out in very abstract terms. Government must respect human rights, it must respect religious freedom and other forms of freedom of conscience, it must distribute its wealth so as to give everyone a fair stake in its economy and, above all, it must conduct its elections and other political procedures argumentatively so that each citizen is treated as someone worth convincing not just outvoting.

The United States fails by all these standards, and Britain does not do much better. We fail most dramatically in the character of our politics. Our politicians treat us as ignorant consumers; they entertain us with slogans and sound bites rather than arguments. In America, a very pessimistic explanation of this degraded politics is now fashionable. Americans are supposedly divided into two radically opposed cultures: the red culture that wants its religion public, drinks beer, lives in the middle, and votes Republican, and the blue culture that keeps its religion (if any) private, drinks white wine, lives on the coasts and votes Democratic. Genuine argument requires some common ground from which argument can start, and the conventional wisdom now holds that these two cultures are so fundamentally divided, in every respect, that there is no common ground. Politics is doomed to be war by other means.

I don't agree with this pessimistic conclusion. There are two very basic ethical principles that I believe are firmly part of western culture now and that are shared across the allegedly unbridgeable political divide. These hold, first, that it is objectively important that a human life, once begun, succeeds rather than fails, and, second, that each person has a non-delegable personal responsibility for identifying and pursuing success in his or her own life. If we all accept those basic principles, then we can reconstruct political argument as an argument about which political policies pursue the most attractive interpretation of these basic ethical requirements.

I think we need a distinctly liberal interpretation, which includes an understanding of human rights that makes our treatment of many terrorist suspects a violation of those rights. There are two general models of religion and politics - a choice between a religious state that tolerates dissent and a secular state that tolerates religion - and I believe that the basic principles, properly understood, require the secular state. To this end, I have explored a scheme for judging whether the level of a community's redistribution of its wealth through taxation is legitimate - in my view taxation in the United States and in Britain is illegitimately low.

The quality of political debate in the United States and Britain could be improved by, for example, a mandatory course in contemporary political issues in all secondary schools in which the most divisive issues are discussed against the background of the best rival arguments. This is the kind of argument our countries now lack.

1 comment:

James Young said...

The "myth of democracy"? How about the misrepresentation of democracy? This is not, nor was it ever intended to be, a "democracy." It's a republic ("if you can keep it," said Ben Franklin), and it demonstrates the ignorance of the speaker/author to suggest that it is or was ever intended to be otherwise.