Saturday, September 03, 2005

Who Wants a Government of the People?


I’ve just agreed to engage in a at my university. I’ll be defending the value of . One might expect the validity of my position to be taken for granted, with no opposition. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Indeed, I know that I’ll have a hard time. The only thing my opponent needs to do is refer to the and ask whether it’s a democratic country.

“Yes,” I’ll say.

“I rest my case,” he’ll say.

“But the United States is unique,” I’ll reply. “You can’t conclude that it represents democracy in general.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know.”

If the debate is not to crash in this disastrous way, I must be able to explain the pathologies that are so apparent in the US today. (Explain them, not justify them, for there can be no justification or denial of the facts.) And my explanation cannot in any way blame democracy itself — if, indeed, I decide to concede that the US is still a democracy — a view that is widely and plausibly contested.

Not only was the of 2000 stolen, but some sound scholarship suggests that so was the 2004 election, though in a different way. In 2000 the popular vote favored the Democrats but won by capturing the electoral college. In 2004, the popular vote favored Bush, though Kerry might well have carried the electoral college, had there been no hanky-panky.

To bring America up to world-standards of democracy through requires more than abolishing the . At a minimum it also requires abolishing the system, which pretty much limits to two the number of significant political parties and therefore limits the range of choice.

There are dozens of other democratic states today with more responsive systems of governance than the United States. Still, I will not argue that it is an undemocratic country. If George W. Bush did not actually win the last two elections, he at least achieved a close tie and it is not obvious that his opponents would have governed very differently, had they won.

What I must argue is that political decisions made democratically are not necessarily any better substantively than those made by other processes. The current policies made by the US government prove that. All that it takes to prove the point is to find one single instance of a democracy that (a) refuses to sign the international covenant on the ; (b) opposes the ; (c) opposes the ; (d) opposes on principle the responsibility of the international community to protect citizens whose own government abuses them; (e) refuses to sign the Accords; (f) refuses to provide medical care to all its citizens; and (g) cuts funding for the maintenance of essential services and infrastructure (such as levees in ) while cutting taxes for the wealthy and paying for wars that it initiates against foreign countries. And we all know where to find such a country.

I must therefore concede, at the outset of the debate, that substantively, the domestic policies of democratic countries are not necessarily better than those of dictatorships. Thus Castro’s — a repressive regime that violates its citizens’ civil rights routinely — nevertheless makes health care and free education available to all — policies that surpass the standards of many richer democratic societies.

Despite all the imperfections of democracy, societies all around the world are adopting it as their form of governance. Everywhere, it is gaining popularity. Even blatantly repressive regimes commonly claim to be representative and accountable, for there is no other commonly accepted basis of legitimacy. The demand for democratization is based on this simple claim: “We want to make our own decisions. Even if we do make mistakes, they will be our own mistakes, and if we choose to do so, we can then revise our policies.”

As arguments go, that one entirely suffices.

Nevertheless, there are two other persuasive grounds for favoring democracy. First, it limits both and the violent repression of citizens by their own governments. And second, it is especially conducive to economic . I’ll develop both of these points in my debate and in other blog posts.

5 Comments:

Anonymous rex said...

As with most processes, debating has both positive & negative aspects. I like that the debators are challenged to think deeply about the question, but I don't like the 'win/lose' aspect of debates. I also question the question for this debate. (As a Quaker, I even question my own questions!) I'd rather start by asking "Do we need government?" & then ask, "If so, what kind of government we need?" [Then, if we say 'democracy', we need to define what we mean by 'democracy'.]
I'd say because of our universal interconnectedness, we definitely need some sort of government. First of all, I need to govern myself in ways that will keep me alive. But because my ways might interfere with your staying alive, we need to find mutally satifactory ways to resolve our differences. Because "the future's not ours to see", the only way we can ever tell which way is best is to try it out. 'Majority rule democracy' doesn't guarantee that the majority's ideas will prove to be efficatious. Even the majority's ideas have to be tested in the 'market place' of reality.
So I'd like propose that we opt for government of the people, by the people & for all life!

10:41 AM  
Blogger tednichols said...

This Canadian will help you with your questions on the United States and especially Canadian democracy. Ted Nichols
> Canadian
> editorialist.
>
> DavidWarrenOnline
> ESSAYS ON OUR TIMES
> SUNDAY SPECTATOR
> September 11, 2005
>
> Blame throwing
>
> There's plenty wrong with America, since you asked. (Everybody's
> asking.) I'm tempted to say, the only difference from Canada, is that
> they have a few things right. That would be unfair, of course -- I am
> often pleased to discover things we still get right.
>
> But one of them would not be disaster preparation. If something
> happened
> up here, on the scale of Katrina, we wouldn't even have the
> resources to
> arrive late. We would be waiting for the Americans to come save
> us, the
> same way the government in Louisiana just waved and pointed at
> Washington, D.C. The theory being, that when you're in real trouble,
> that's where the adults live.
>
> And that isn't an exaggeration. Almost everything that has worked
> in the
> recovery operation along the U.S. Gulf Coast has been military and
> National Guard. Within a few days, under several commands, finally
> consolidated under the remarkable Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, it was once
> again the U.S. military, efficiently cobbling together a recovery
> operation on a scale beyond the capacity of any other earthly
> institution.
>
> We hardly have a military up here. We have elected one feckless
> government after another, who have cut corners until there is nothing
> substantial left. We don't have the ability even to transport and
> equip
> our few soldiers. Should disaster strike at home, on a big scale, we
> become a Third World country. At which point, our national
> smugness is
> of no avail.
>
> From Democrats and the American Left -- the U.S. equivalent to the
> people
> who run Canada -- we are still hearing that the disaster in New
> Orleans
> showed a heartless, white Republican America had abandoned its
> underclass.
>
> This is garbage. The great majority of those not evacuated lived in
> assisted housing, receive food stamps and prescription medicine and
> government support through many other programmes. Many have, all
> their
> lives, expected someone to lift them to safety, sans input from
> themselves. And the demagogic mayor they elected left, quite
> literally,
> hundreds of transit and school buses parked in rows to be lost in the
> flood, that could have driven them out of town.
>
> Yes, that was insensitive. But it is also the truth; and sooner or
> later
> we must acknowledge that welfare dependency creates exactly the
> sort of
> haplessness and social degeneration we saw on display, as the
> floodwaters
> rose. Many suffered terribly, and many died, and one's heart goes
> out.
> But already the survivors are being put up in new accommodations, and
> their various entitlements have been directed to new locations.
>
> The scale of private charity has also been unprecedented. There
> are yet
> no statistics, but I'll wager the most generous state in the union
> will
> prove to have been arch-Republican Texas, and that nationally,
> contributions in cash and kind are coming disproportionately from
> people
> who vote Republican. For the world divides into "the mouths" and "the
> wallets".
>
> The Bush-bashing, both down there and up here, has so far lost
> touch with
> reality, as to raise questions about the bashers' state of mind.
>
> Consult any authoritative source on how government works in the United
> States, and you will learn that the U.S. federal government's legal,
> constitutional, and institutional responsibility for first response to
> Katrina, as to any natural disaster, was zero.
>
> Notwithstanding, President Bush took the prescient step of declaring a
> disaster, in order to begin deploying FEMA and other federal
> assets, two
> full days in advance of the stormfall. In the little time since,
> he has
> managed to coordinate an immense recovery operation -- the largest in
> human history -- without invoking martial powers. He has been
> sufficiently Presidential to respond, not even once, to the
> extraordinarily mendacious and childish blame-throwing.
>
> One thinks of Kipling's "If --" poem, which I learned to recite as
> a lad,
> and mention now in the full knowledge that it drives postmodern
> leftoids
> and gliberals to apoplexy -- as anything that is good, beautiful, or
> true:
>
> If you can keep your head when all about you
> Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
> If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
> But make allowance for their doubting too;
> If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
> Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
> Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
> And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise...
>
> Unlike his critics, Bush is a man, in the full sense presented by
> these
> verses. A fallible man, like all the rest, but a man.
>
> David Warren
> C Ottawa Citizen

8:09 PM  
Blogger tednichols said...

If there is to be a debate about Democracy it should be about ideas and not name calling or "stolen elections". In that spirit I submit the following. It is an idea lost.
Failure of an idea ... and a people

In his 1935 State of the Union Address, FDR spoke to a nation mired in
the Depression, but still marinated in conservative values:

"Continued dependence" upon welfare, said FDR, "induces a spiritual
disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber. To dole
our relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of
the human spirit."

Behind FDR's statement was the conviction that, while the government
must step in an emergency, in normal times, men provide the food,
clothing and shelter for their families. And we did, until the war pulled
us
out of the Depression and a postwar boom made us, in John K.
Galbraith's phrase, "The Affluent Society." By the 1960s, America, the
richest
country on earth, was growing ever more prosperous. But with the 1964
landslide of LBJ, liberalism triumphed and began its great experiment.

Behind the Great Society was a great idea: to lift America's poor out
of poverty, government should now take care of all their basic needs. By
giving the poor welfare, subsidized food, public housing and free
medical care, government will end poverty in America.

At the Superdome and New Orleans Convention Center, we saw the failure
of 40 years of the Great Society. No sooner had Katrina passed by and
the 17th Street levee broke than hundreds of young men who should have
taken charge in helping the aged, the sick and the women with babies to
safety took to the streets to shoot, loot and rape. The New Orleans
police, their numbers cut by deserters who left their posts to look after
their families, engaged in running gun battles all day long to stay
alive and protect people.

It was the character and conduct of its people that makes the New
Orleans disaster unique. After a hurricane, people's needs are simple:
food, water, shelter, medical attention. But they can be hard to meet.
People buried in rubble or hiding in attics of flooded homes are tough
to get to. But, even with the incompetence of the mayor and governor,
and the torpor of federal officials, this was possible.

Coast Guard helicopters were operating Tuesday. There were roads open
into the city for SUVs, buses and trucks. While New Orleans was
flooded, the water was stagnant. People walked through to the convention
center and Superdome. The flimsiest boat could navigate.

Even if government dithered for days... what else is new? This does not
explain the failure of the people themselves.

Between 1865 and 1940, the South having lost a fourth of its best and
bravest in battle, devastated by war, mired in poverty was famous for
the hardy self-reliance of her people, black and white.

In 1940, hundreds of British fishermen and yachtsmen sailed back and
forth daily under fire across a turbulent 23-mile Channel to rescue
300,000 soldiers from Dunkirk. How do we explain to the world that a tenth
that number of Americans could not be reached in four days from across
a stagnant pond?

The real disaster of Katrina was that society broke down. An entire
community could not cope. Liberalism, the idea that good intentions and
government programs can build a Great Society, was exposed as fraud.
After trillions of tax dollars for welfare, food stamps, public housing,
job training and education have poured out since 1965, poverty remains
pandemic.

But today, when the police vanish, the community disappears and men
take to the streets to prey on women and the weak. Stranded for days in a
pool of fetid water, almost everyone waited for the government to come
save them. They screamed into the cameras for help, and the reporters
screamed into the cameras for help, and the "civil rights leaders"
screamed into the cameras that Bush was responsible and Bush was a racist.

Americans were once famous for taking the initiative, for having young
leaders rise up to take command in a crisis. See any of that at the
Superdome? Sri Lankans and Indonesians, far poorer than we, did not behave
like this in a tsunami that took 400 times as many lives as Katrina has
thus far.

We are the descendants of men and women who braved the North Atlantic
in wooden boats to build a country in a strange land. Our ancestors
traveled thousands of miles in covered wagons, fighting off Indians far
braver than those cowards preying on New Orleans.

Watching that performance in the Crescent City, it seems clear: We are
not the people our parents were. And what are all our Lords Temporal
now howling for? Though government failed at every level, they want more
government.

FDR was right. A "spiritual disintegration" has overtaken us.
Government-as-first-provider, the big idea of the Great Society, has proven
to
be "a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit."

Either we get off this narcotic, or it kills us.

8:52 PM  
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11:39 PM  

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