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Edwin Eisendrath

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It's the Democracy, Stupid!

Posted: 10/05/11 03:00 PM ET

It's not the economy, stupid. It's the democracy itself.

Congress and the president have the potential to undermine the biggest global democratic movement since the fall of the Soviet Union. In the Middle East, where I spent this season of Arab Spring, people watched the debt ceiling drama and wondered aloud whether democracy itself is too weak to meet the pressing challenges of this age. It turns out that in failing ourselves we are failing the world.

The U.S. is still feared and respected for its military power, but our leadership requires moral and economic power as well. One cannot work overseas without hearing friends say "America is a great country, but it needs to focus on its own problems." Less sympathetic voices say that our system is weak, that our best days are behind us, and that we are a danger to the world.

In order to combat those who would delight in our downfall we ought to heed the pleas of our friends. We do need to focus on our problems, and none is bigger than the state of our democracy. The disconnect between elected leaders and the people is dangerously large, as Americans are most united only in their nearly universal disgust with Washington. Restoring our democracy is by far the most pressing issue facing America, and a prerequisite for tackling the federal deficit, re-launching our economy, and regaining our leadership position around the world.

The circus in Washington around the debt ceiling said more about the state of democracy than about economic and fiscal policy. The rational responses to the country's budget mess are clear, simple, and already well known. The Bowles-Simpson commission did the arithmetic for us and, unlike Standard and Poors, no one has suggested their math is incorrect. The structure and scope of government spending must change in order to control costs. The structure and scope of the tax code must change in order to raise revenues efficiently. Yet Washington flummoxed the grand bargain and showcased its determination to divide us.

America's businesses are strong and competitive. Our resources are deep and broad. Our people are hardworking and inventive. Each of us has walked through valleys of darkness in our lives and most have come through better for it. At one point or another, most of us have honestly assessed the challenges in our lives and overcome them. As it has in the past, a government of the people, by the people and for the people would be able to do the same now. That it hasn't should worry every patriot.

The nation's founders understood that democracy was hard work, not to be taken for granted, and in need of constant care. They knew that if they tended to the democracy, the rest would take care of itself. In a remarkable passage from Federalist 58, written in the 1780's James Madison seems to be talking directly about our current situation.

Ignorance will be the dupe of cunning, and passion the slave of sophistry and declamation... The countenance of the government may become more democratic, but the soul that animates it will be more oligarchic. The machine will be enlarged, but the fewer, and often the more secret, will be the springs by which its motions are directed.

He was specifically addressing the size of the House of Representatives, but carefully described the ways honest representation gets undermined. Certainly most Americans feel like our government is not listening to us any more, that its motions are directed by unseen springs.

No one from the House has ever been elected president. Nor has America ever elected a truly fringe candidate. Yet Michele Bachmann is treated by the press as a serious contender for the job. This irresponsible elevating of her stature paints a false picture of America, encourages fools to try imagine that's who we are, and causes an angry and incredulous reaction in almost everyone else.

Madison concludes his essay by suddenly changing the subject to talk about the size of a quorum. He worries that by allowing minorities in the House to block decisions:

the fundamental principle of free government would be reversed. It would be no longer the majority that would rule... the power would be transferred to the minority... It would facilitate and foster the baneful practice of secessions... a practice which leads more directly to public convulsions, and the ruin of popular governments, than any other which has yet been displayed among us.

Since the last election we have seen the Tea Party destroy any attempt at a "grand bargain" that would address our federal budget deficit and re-launch our economy. We have seen them use issues like funding disaster relief to hold the government hostage to its ideology. It is an intransigence that, as Madison suggested, upends our democratic principles and surely does, in combination with the highly publicized, intolerant and factually challenged campaigns of Rep. Bachmann and others who cater to this ignorance, create strongly divisive and secessionist feelings.

Around the world autocrats find comfort in our mess. When we turned away from Egypt's Mubarak, the Saudis were angry. They were warned by the Chinese and others that America is a rabble that cannot be trusted. The irresponsible debt ceiling mess emboldened global antidemocratic forces.

Congress and the interests they work for are squarely to blame. But the president plays the largest role in giving voice to our national aspirations -- and we have none higher than protecting our democracy. Mr. Obama came into office dreaming about Abe Lincoln. The Republicans would like nothing more than if he left office as a latter-day James Buchanan.