Sunday, January 27, 2008

Not Dead Yet: Democracy in America

At the risk of stating the obvious, there has never been a Presidential election like this. That's not hyperbole, it's simple fact. Many have pointed out that this year is unusual in that there's no incumbent or sitting veep on either side. Just add that that has never been the case in the era when nominations are decided by popular vote. Add too the surprise that the much-decried front-loaded primary schedule has actually worked quite well (more by accident than by design), with the early states showing the candidates from different angles and winnowing the field by maybe 50% -- but leaving the ultimate decision to a broad swath of the electorate on Super Tuesday and beyond.

Also throw in the mix the huge number of debates in a broad menu of formats that have given anyone interested a chance to assess and re-assess the candidates. Finally, note that money has not been decisive so far, and that candidates who have not been particularly well tied in to existing power structures (Obama, Ron Paul) have been quite successful raising money through grass-roots, online channels.

No doubt that democracy in America needs fixing. The flood of special interest money and lobbying influence; our creaky electoral machinery; the ever more scientifically deranged gerrymandering; the flood of negative, manipulative advertising; the massive media exposure of every personal failing and foible; the bitter partisanship; the current administration's shocking mismanagement of foreign and fiscal policy; and, most important, this administration's assault on civil liberties and the balance of power between branches -- made me, for one, wonder whether the power of the people to effect change through voting was slipping away as fast as our position in the world. And it's still possible that future shocks, like say a major terrorist attack, will generate enough fear to induce Congress and people to acquiesce in another major power grab by the next president, as the Democrats have rolled over before Bush's institutionalization of torture, suspension of habeas, and eviscerating of FISA. But can anyone doubt that we have real choices in this election? Democracy's defining power -- the ability to change course -- is not dead yet.

Obama's message is often derided as gauzy. I think it's substantive - the fruit of twenty years of ripening thought -- on the largest issue of all: how to make democracy function better. The elements include restricting the power of lobbying; a well articulated approach to bipartisanship; and -- most recently, developed in response to the double-barreled Clinton assault -- restoring trust by insisting on a high standard of truth in political discourse. It's the last, with the Clintons as foil, that could be the game-changer in the nominating battle.

Many who have succumbed this season to a modicum of idealism will turn bitterly disillusioned if we end with, say, a Romney-Clinton election. That shouldn't be. When the choice is open, we should trust the electorate. I would still more than half expect Hillary to be an excellent president, angered though I've been by the assault on Obama. Romney has the smarts and managerial skill to be effective, repellent as I find his positions and his position-shifting. The worst danger is another electoral malfunction of the kind that brought us Bush. It's the failures of democracy -- rather than electoral outcomes that we may not like -- that is the true danger.

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