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Dana Radcliffe

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What Are We Teaching the World About Democracy?

Posted: 08/12/11 01:58 PM ET

The United States has long worked to foster democracy around the world. We press authoritarian leaders to move toward representative government, and we support opponents of autocratic regimes that resist democratic reforms. We welcomed the Arab Spring as the harbinger of a transforming struggle for democratization in the Middle East. We are fighting costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in part to help build and protect democratic institutions in those strategically vital countries.

We have to assume, then, that people in the Middle East and other regions where we are promoting democracy look to us to demonstrate how it should operate. But what lessons are they taking from what has happened in Washington in recent months, especially in the political battle over raising the national debt ceiling?

One conclusion they may well draw is that the democratic process is all about winning. It is a high-stakes competition in which legislators dedicated to a certain policy can use whatever means necessary -- including the threat of economic catastrophe -- to achieve their goals. Lawmaking is really just a continuation of political campaigns. After an election victory, you move on to political combat with other elected officials. When you and they disagree on proposed legislation, success entails nothing less than defeating your adversaries, forcing them to accept your priorities over their own.

In running for office, you make solemn promises to advance specific policies. Once elected, you push as hard as you can for those policies, refusing to cut deals that will deliver anything less than you promised in your campaign. "Compromise" is a dirty word, and concessions to opponents are abdications of your principles. Your supporters are entitled to expect that, regardless of the economic or political circumstances, you will not deviate from the agenda they elected you to implement.

At bottom, even in a democracy, exercising political power comes down to imposing your will on others, coercing them to accept the policies you favor. Negotiation is merely conveying your demands to the other side, making sure they understand what you require and the cost of their not acceding to your terms. Persuasion is a matter of giving your opponents offers they can't refuse.

Another lesson we may be teaching those who hope to learn about democracy from our example is that, if you make a pledge to your constituents always to hold to a given policy -- e.g., not to increase taxes -- there is no need for you to defend your position. When anyone questions the wisdom of that policy, you can dismiss the objections or simply note that your constituents embrace it and you have pledged to honor their wishes. No justification has to be provided for the policy itself. Opponents' arguments -- whether based on economic analyses or considerations of fairness or the common good -- are irrelevant. What is important is your mandate, fulfilling the promises you made to those who elected you. That is all the justification you need for your unyielding commitment to the policy.

Perhaps, in America, this is the new political reality. But, if so, it is a dismal reality. If this is the model of democracy we are presenting to the world, then we should acknowledge that we have abandoned some cherished beliefs.

We have relinquished the notion that our political system embodies deliberative democracy, wherein elected representatives use their discretion in serving the interests of both their constituents and the nation. The idea is that we entrust other citizens with official power based on their experience and character, expecting them to weigh policy issues carefully and make sound, responsible decisions in light of the available facts.

We must admit that we no longer believe the democratic process should be informed by genuine debate, where our representatives listen to each other's arguments, giving them an honest hearing and responding with thoughtful questions and criticism -- and occasionally changing their minds. We have lost our belief that complex policy problems call for critical examination from multiple perspectives and their solutions must be defensible to the wider public, not just friendly constituencies.

If our democracy has degenerated to a win-lose power game, then we have broken with the Founding Fathers in their belief that laws should be forged through authentic debate, deliberation, negotiation, and compromise among representatives of different -- and often competing -- constituencies. To be sure, they recognized that this is an ideal the real-world legislative process only roughly approximates. But, now, it is far from clear that we even share that ideal.