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August 24, 2006

The Link Between How We Think and Whether We'll Win: III. Liberal Democracy Has Been No Small Blessing

By Andrew Schmookler

Too many leftists make the mistake of judging the liberal democracy the Bushites are dismantling only by the standards of perfect justice and not by the standards of historical experience. As a result, they fail to perceive how great a change Bushite fascism represents.


The thesis of the first installment of this "Link Between How We Think" series was that to defeat this regime it is necessary to rally a strong majority of American public opinion. That thesis, combined with the reality that the American public is not the least bit ripe to support the leftist agenda to conduct a major overhaul of the basic, long-established American system, led to the conclusion in the second installment that a restoration of the pre-Bushite status quo ante --of our traditional heritage as a constitutional democracy-- is the best realistic scenario toward which we should strive.

These simple realities dictate that we should focus our attention on dealing with the present emergency, i.e. the Bushite regime that is indeed overhauling the American system but in a fascist direction.

That left the question, however, as to how important the difference is between the Bushite regime and the American regime that has been normal in times past.

The leftist tendency has been to minimize the difference, not by denying the evils of the Bushites but rather by emphasizing the history of American injustice and corruption. They seem to conclude that nothing all that precious in what America was before.

America's Role in the World-- Under the Bushites vs. In the Past

I encountered this tendency in a recent discussion of America's role as a great power on the world stage.

I had made reference to the preciptious plunge, during Bush's tenure, in the esteem and trust given America by the peoples of other nations, including especially those of our traditional friends among the democracies of Europe. This elicited comments that made light of the changes in public opinion, and emphasized how America has long misbehaved, abusing its power at the expense of weaker nations.

I readily admitted that the United States has, over the many years of its being a great power, frequently used its strength unjustly. I'm fully aware of the long list of such abuses. But I maintained that the positive opinion in which America was held, before the Bushites, reflected a possibly more important truth: that in comparison with how other hegemonic powers have acted, the United States was relatively just and humane.

In this context, I referred to how clear it was to millions of Europeans during the Cold War, on both sides of that divided continent, in which superpower's sphere of influence it was better to live.

But there was dispute even regarding the idea that there was, between the two superpowers, a clear better or worse choice. It was clear to most of the world that the communist "alliances" were held together by coercion while the democratic ones were voluntary; that one part of Germany had to construct a wall to keep its people from escaping to the other part; that the peoples of half of Europe maintained a predominantly positive opinion of the superpower with which it was aligned, while the peoples of the other half stampeded to the exits as soon as it became clear that their dominating superpower was no longer going to enforce subordination with troops and tanks, as it had in 1956 and 1968. Even all this evidence was not sufficient to establish in the minds of my interlocutors that in important ways the American superpower was relatively good.

Here we see some of the hallmarks of the impediments to clear perception on the American left.

There is the refusal to make distinctions between something that is seriously flawed but relatively good and something that is much worse– a kind of thinking that I've referred to as "all shades of gray are black." There's the insistence on maintaining an un-nuanced stance of antagonism toward their own country, even if it means refusing to consider objectively the views of hundreds of millions of one's fellow humans, based on their own deeply lived experience.

So these leftists are not impressed when, in the wake of the Bushites shredding of the international order, a couple hundred million Western Europeans switch from having a positive to a negative view of the United States as an actor on the world stage. This seems to represent a commitment to ideology over truth.

But when people like these Europeans --with decades or generations of experience of American power figuring largely in their lives --perceive that something important has changed since George W. Bush became president, so should we. When it becomes something new for majorities of such people to tell pollsters that United States, under Bush, has become a global bully and a threat to peace, it is incumbent for us to recognize that previously the U.S. was something better than that.

Liberal Democracy in Historical Perspective

To speak of the United States as a relatively benign hegemonic power is not to deny the evils that it has also committed. It is to judge it, not just by the standards of the moral ideal, but also by (the admittedly dismal) standards of historical experience.

To recognize the relative goodness of a morally flawed power like the United States has previously been is not to deny the moral imperative for American citizens of working to make their country better (the history of American bullying surely did not begin with the Bush administration). But such recognition is necessary to recognize how profound has been the change wrought by this current Bushite regime.

As with evaluating America as a world power, so also with assessing the value of the liberal democracy.

Isn't it ironic that my attempts to rally Americans to oppose this Bushite regime should evoke declarations from the left about how corrupt our supposedly democratic system has always been, which serves only to provide cover to Bush?

Our capitalist system, they remind us, produces great inequalities of wealth that corrupt our supposed democracy into a plutocracy. Our political system manipulates and exploits the common people, they say, rather than serves them. And the corporate media, and other institutions engaged in the "marketplace of ideas," become extensions of these plutocratic empires of corrupt power. And all this was true long before the rise of the Bushites.

Point taken. Our liberal democracy is indeed pervaded by the problem of power-- of its becoming unequally distributed, and consequently of its being wielded unjustly. By the standards of perfect justice, the American polity has fallen woefully short. And that standard is worth using-- by citizens striving constantly to correct the imbalances and to right the injustices.

But when it comes to our basic attitude toward liberal democracy, when it comes to whether we condemn it or we embrace and celebrate it, it is not that ideal standard but the standard of actual human history that we should use.

There is here one key truth to contemplate: Of all the socio-political systems that have been created in the thousands of years since civilized societies, liberal democracy is --for all its vulnerabilites to corruption-- the best system yet found for creating a just and decent society. (One is reminded of Churchill's observation that "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.") Its true competitors are not some imagined perfection, but the still more corrupt systems of feudal lords, of the divine rights of kings, of dictatorships, and of communist and fascist totalitarianism.

That points to a human tragedy, I know, but it also points to a profound and inescapable truth we cannot allow ourselves to ignore: the history of civilization is mostly the history of tyranny and oppression, of injustice and enslavement. Corruption is the natural tendency of systems of civilized governance, just as water tends to flow downhill, and systems generally tend toward entropy.

Only the careful construction of systems of checks and balance to contain the free play of power gives a society a chance at blocking the downhill slide into injustice. The American Constitution is one such carefully constructed system.

But the system also needs to be constantly maintained to prevent the waters of corruption from seeping out through cracks that develop. It is in the nature of the predicament of civilized humans that ANY system we devise will tend to devolve into unjust inequalities of power, a kind of entropic tendency. That is what is behind Thomas Jefferson's call upon us citizens to exercise "eternal vigilance. "

One of my leftist challengers has conceded that neither past nor contemporary history provides an example of a society more just and more decent than those created by modern liberal democracies. Yet this same challenger continually scorns the whole liberal project.

To me, the combination of that concession and that scorn makes no sense. If liberal democracy is the best of our available options, we owe its achievement on this continent our gratitude, not our scorn. It's as if, threatened with drowning in a stormy sea, one were to swim away from a lifeboat, cursing it for not being a pleasure boat.

This challenger presents himself as a champion of "people power." But nowhere else in the history of civilization have citizens had so much power over their system as in liberal democracies.

Certainly, our liberal democracy has always been deeply marbled with injustice. And it seems reasonably clear that the the couple of decades prior to the Bushime's coming to power was a period of downhill slide in the American system. The level of plutocratic inequality increased; the quality of our public discourse declined.

But that does not indict the system of liberal democracy itself, but only brings into sharp relief how profound is the challenge of preventing the corruption of its ideals.

If we look at other liberal democracies in the world, we find that in most of them the balance between the economic and political systems has been better maintained. In other words, it would seem that in America too much of the destiny of our nation is decided by people acting as social atoms in the marketplace and too list by the people deciding collectively through the political system.

That the U.S. is virtually the only liberal democracy not to provide health care to its people as a right of citizenship is an indication of this imbalance.

The increasingly dominant role of corporate power over citizen power in the political system is another sign of the entropic decay of America's liberal democracy.

But as disturbing as such problems are --as urgent as may be the need for enacting such measures as universal health insurance, or public financing of elections-- the solutions to such problems are to be found not by throwing out the systems of liberal democracy, but by making more effective use of them. History suggests that this is the only way it can happen-the only way the will of the people can overrule the rule of the powerful few and of the power systems.

Those East Germans who risked their lives to escape to the West understood something that only a combination of ingratitude and immaturity could prevent us from recognizing: that the blessings of living in a liberal democracy are of vital importance, and that the vast human experience throughout history reveals that these blessings are not to be taken for granted.

So when we look at the unprecedented assault from this Bushite regime on the structures of our traditional American liberal democracy --the way that many reasonable people now fear, as never before, that the regime may have already destroyed the possibilities for fair elections; the way that this administration's continual use of lies and manipulation has made it impossible for Americans to deliberate reasonably about any of our national issues; the way that this administration has repeatedly trampled on law and Constitution, and grabbed for the unchecked power of tyranny-- it should be with passion and inspiration that we struggle against these Bushite forces to achieve a restoration of the American system, not just as a lesser of evils, but as a blessing worth fighting for.

Submitters Bio:
Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is WHAT WE'RE UP AGAINST. His previous books include The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution, for which he was awarded the Erik H. Erikson prize by the International Society for Political Psychology.