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Democracy: the end is near


After many gruelling weeks of hype and expectations, Pennsylvania has turned out to be just another pit stop on the torturous road of the Democratic Party’s self-mutilation called “primary season”. Nine more of these masochistic exercises to go before the convention, with Indiana and North Carolina lining up to be the next “decisive” states in a contest where Barack Obama only seems to be able to win the nomination by walking on water or by splitting the sea. The most disturbing aspect of this whole race is not the fact that the Democrats can’t seem to be able to make up their minds –nor that the Republicans are laughing all the way to White House in 2009– but that it is symptomatic of our broken system of governance: democracy itself is broken, and it is hard to see how the 21st Century could breath new life into the golden democratic calf of our Western societies.

The US primaries seem an unlikely reason to criticise democracy. The process of electing a candidate for each party is something that European electorates –continuously disappointed by poor candidates who were chosen in smoke-filled rooms by political elites– can only dream of. In principle, the US system should be a shining example for other democratic nations to follow; a cool combination of people power and American style spectacle that Europeans never seem to get quite right; a reaffirmation of the New World’s Manifest Destiny; the light on the hill with the singular purpose of being emulated worldwide. Unfortunately, it is none of these things.

The fact of the matter is that the primary electoral process –just as the general elections that follow and most of the other bedrocks of our beloved democracies– has been in a steady and vicious decay, corrupted by human nature, special interests and mass movements of disconnected consumers. Any well-designed democratic system needs at least three essential pillars to be sustained and kept in a relatively pure, untouched shape. It needs a moderately engaged and conscious electorate; it needs a responsive political elite whose members are accountable for their actions and who are easily replaceable; and it needs a strong and vibrant secondary system of media and other non-political organizations balancing out the formal power structures.

From a historical perspective, modern democracy is a very young social experiment that recently seems to have hit puberty. Whether democracy can ever reach adulthood is highly questionable. As the three pillars mentioned above are slowly rotting away, there is very little evidence to support claims of its sustainable nature.

First, let’s look at the electorate. All around the world, voters are feeling “disenfranchised” and basically unloved by their political representatives. In reality, it is a plague on both houses. Not only are representatives under-representing the represented, but the electorates are becoming disconnected from broader world affairs. Polls continuously show that citizens in Western democracies are increasingly unaware of political issues and ignorant of basic general knowledge. They are no longer able to make informed decisions, and instead make their political choices based on primal knee-jerk reactions that tend to favour either populists or plutocrats. In Europe, populists are typically the beneficiaries (Welcome back, Mr. Berlusconi!). In the US, it’s the plutocrats; which brings us to the second corrupted pillar, the political elite.

In the United States, it has become virtually impossible to get elected to the Senate or even the House of Representatives without being relatively wealthy. Moreover, Washington has increasingly become a place of likeminded people who move around in similar circles of friends and lobbyists, thus making political differences symbolic rather than conflictive. Political conflict is surely the essence of any proper democratic system, and too much trust between the different branches of government is counterproductive. The Founding Fathers were all too aware of this, and explains their emphasis on checks and balances. Without it, the cosiness between supposed adversaries prohibits a properly functioning political class.

The House Ethics Committee is notoriously ineffective at enforcing basic standards of decency, and the lack of congressional oversight with respect to the Administration is tending to the ridiculous. Once in a while a politician has to leave office in shame (typically because of lewd acts in public bathrooms or because of talkative, overpriced prostitutes), but even that has become emblematic of the overall problem: a show to keep up appearances. Special interests, whether they are financial or politically incestuous, rule this Washington spectacle. It is difficult to see a way out of such a self-perpetuating orgy of plutocratic decadence.

Thirdly, the media and other supposedly independent organizations have lost their initial purpose. This is where the Democratic primaries are showing the true, ugly colours of the decay. For a very long time it has been clear that Hillary Clinton cannot win on merit alone (trailing by too much in both the popular vote and the pledged delegates). Moreover, her continued presence in the race is hurting Obama’s chances during the November election. Even if she counts on the super delegates to swing her way, the mere idea that she could still win would be too absurd in any well-functioning representative system. Fortunately for her, the system does not work, and the lack of media scrutiny is largely to blame. Instead of speaking truth to power, they play along nicely by focussing on irrelevant and mind-numbing matters. “Why doesn’t he (Obama) wear a lapel pin with the American flag every day?”, for example.

The media’s obsession could be explained as simple incompetence, but the more reasonable interpretation is that they have become part of the establishment, part of the status quo. As such, they have no interest in truly questioning the efficacy of Washington politics. Given that Hillary Clinton is much more part of the in-crowd than Barack Obama, it is no surprise that as far as the media is concerned, the primary process should last forever.

One of the major non-stories of the past weeks, whipped up by media, Republicans and Clintonites alike, were comments that Obama made about voters in rural areas being bitter about politics, and therefore clinging to other issues such as religion and guns. Whereas Obama is probably giving too much credit to the apathetic electorate, it would actually make sense for people to start preparing for God or violence. With the demise of our precious democratic structures, the end might be nigh. If so, people should be preparing for rapture, hoping that their particular choice of faith will make them part of the chosen few. If, on the other hand, it turns out that they were on the wrong theological side, they will surely need their guns to defend themselves during the coming hell on earth.

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