(Article changed on December 27, 2012 at 15:16)
is often said of Mussolini's fascist dictatorship that "At least he made the
trains run on time." The point is that without freedom, an authoritarian
government can create a society that is efficient. What people who have not
lived through fascism do not seem to appreciate is the high cost that comes
with that efficiency. It is also often pointed out that democracy is a messy
business, but too many do not appreciate their own part in creating the
disorder that makes fascism appear to be preferable. Is it possible that in a
democracy we could in some sense "make trains run on time?" I propose that a
test of whether we are capable of governing ourselves is whether or not we can
make freeway traffic flow smoothly.
For a democratic society to be viable, citizens must understand the responsibility that comes with the power to make decisions that affect us all. In the same way, drivers have to understand that their decisions on the road determine whether traffic will flow smoothly, to the benefit of all. The individual determines whether decisions based on short-sided self-interest upset the orderly process of getting from one point to another or whether they will frustrate our common goal of getting to our desired destinations efficiently. Only when the great majority of citizens act in the interest of the common goal of driving the US in the direction of democracy will democracy become possible.
I was driving to Portland over the Christmas weekend when I experienced an event that showed how difficult it will be to establish democracy in the chaotic society that the United States has become. Anyone who knows Portland knows that it has been a hotbed of resistance to authority at least since the Vietnam War. It witnessed some of the largest demonstrations in the country against the effort to impose corporate Empire upon the citizens of a distant land while trying to shut down resistance by its own citizens. As I was crawling along the freeway for the last 20 miles, I asked myself how in a city that embodies coordinated resistance to government power have citizens become so blind to the effects of their individual actions? How can it be that a city that recently saw one of the highest turnouts in support of the Occupy movement people could fail to see that only by acting according to what was best for all could they achieve their common goal of getting home as quickly as possible so they could spend time enjoying the holidays with family and friends?
I believe the answer is that while Portlanders truly want democracy to achieve what is best for all, they do so out of self-interest. They understand that our government does not represent us, but fail to recognize that in a democracy a government can only be made to serve their interests when voters understand how their decisions affect us all. That is not to say that Portlanders don't consider this when voting but like Americans everywhere, they do not make it a habit to consider the effects on society as a whole in their individual decisions. There are of course many exceptions to this rule, but the fact that there are not enough citizens who think in this way to make traffic flow smoothly proves that this way of thinking is not as pervasive in the Portland area as they would hope.
Of course, the phenomenon of people who want to create a society in which the government operates in the best of all failing to order their personal lives around this commitment is not unique to Portland. The effects of this failure are being felt around the nation as a whole and by extension, the citizens of nations around the world. The actions of a US government unchecked by the collective power of the citizens it is supposed to represent are the greatest threat to the survival of human civilization in history. Only by acting in cooperation can Americans gain control of the government and save themselves and future generations around the world from the scourge of a permanent fascist New World Order.
To return to the comparison of driving on the freeway to directing a government to head a nation in the direction that the majority of people want to go, consider how easy it would be to make traffic flow efficiently if drivers keep in mind that driving conditions depend on the individual decisions each of them make. All it would take is to remember what each of us learned in driving safety class in high school: Keep a safe distance between cars by allowing one car length for every 10 MPH you are travelling. This allows for safe braking in an emergency and for smooth lane changes, both of which act to allow for the mistakes of others. By analogy, keeping in mind that the country can only move forward when citizens allow a respectful distance between competing interests of our fellow travelers in reaching their individual goals is the only way to avoid collisions of these interests that prevent us all from arriving at our selected destinations.
Imagine a freeway having become a parking lot because of stalled traffic, with cars spread out along a 10 mile stretch of freeway. If these cars were travelling 60 MPH they would cover that distance in 10 minutes. If the drivers are stuck in stop-and-go traffic they might be lucky to travel 10 MPH on average, making a 10 minute trip take a full hour. At the risk of stretching the analogy, I would argue that the US government is stuck in gridlock because Americans have become unwilling to allow space for differences, aggressively pursuing what they perceive to be in their self-interest while ignoring the fact that they are collectively responsible for where we find ourselves at a given time. If those who wanted to travel slowly were to stay to the right and allow those on the left to pass them, each of them would get to our destination at their chosen time.
This is the roadmap to democracy. Every citizen can choose their own destination, but they cannot get there without mutual cooperation. None of us should expect or want to tell others where they must go. When each of us values our personal space over the right of others to share it, some are forced to travel with traffic to a destination others chose. They may miss their chance to go in the direction they choose if others do not give them the space to exit the freeway and go their own way. While each of us would like to believe that we can control the direction we take, most of have been cut off or blocked from the exit of our choosing at one time or another.
If we try to assert the right to choose to exit a road that seems to go in the wrong direction, we may cause a chain of braking that can bring a halt to each of us reaching our chosen destination. On the road, this may even cause a chain of accidents that can make us arrive too late to accomplish our goal in traveling in the first place. In civil society, those who threaten to upset the orderly flow of events by such means as Occupying public spaces are seen as dangerous and are subject to infringements of their civil liberties. In either instance, each of us bears some responsibility if we are not obeying the rules of the road. In the same way that tailgaters endanger others by making lane changes difficult, every one of us who impedes the movement of the nation as a whole toward democracy bears a part of the responsibility for our collective failure to get there.
Democracy is a messy business, but it would not be if we understood that we are so interdependent that we must consider the effects of our individual actions on others and on society as a whole. We can continue to accept the myth that each of us travels the road of life according to our own decisions, or we can accept that we do not control our destinies independent of those of others. Each of us is subject to the effects of decisions made by others. We can choose to be part of the decision making process or we can allow others to make those decisions for us, as Mussolini did for Italians in a fascist society where corporate interests were placed above those of the people. That is what happens when people do not work together to achieve common goals in a democratic way. A complex society can only realize these goals with the help of a government that puts the interests of all above those of the most aggressive among us. Such a government cannot exist unless the people it represents assure that all are represented equally.
I predict that when America passes the Mussolini test, it will have proved that democracy is possible. When the freeways of America move smoothly, Americans will have demonstrated the capacity to determine their collective destinations by allowing each other the freedom and means to choose their own paths. For those who have never driven on a freeway because they live in a part of the country where a tradition of private ownership of roads has persisted or where they have allowed government to make every driver individually pay the cost of using roads that belong to all of us, this will be a particularly meaningful change.
The United States has a system of government designed to allow the existence of a democracy. The road to democracy has not been smooth, but Americans have always been able to get back on the path when the collective interests of all have been threatened by the economic elite that would choose their destiny for them. Americans have the ability to make any changes the majority collectively wants when individuals choose to accept a few basic principles of democracy: respect for differences of opinions, awareness of our interdependence, a willingness to accept the will of the majority and an expectation that our government does the same.
Is there hope for democracy in America and the world? That depends on us. If enough individuals show to others the value of recognizing our interdependence by less aggressively pursuing our individual goals, we might just teach enough others to consider how the effects of their actions on others influence our individual and collective destinies. The simple expedient of demonstrating the importance of common courtesy on the road would be a great way to start.