02/21/2011 11:26 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"Democracy Is the Worst Form of Government"

So said Winston Churchill who then added the punchline: "... except for all the others." An accompanying American colloquialism is: "If you like laws or sausages, never watch either one being made." Any doubts about either of these observations should be erased by current developments in both the Middle East and in Madison, Wisconsin.

A lot of people in the Middle East are rising up to overthrow autocratic governments and in some cases, as in Libya, sacrificing their lives to do so. Whether what follows in the several upheavals underway comes to resemble democracy of any hue remains to be seen. Struggles for power have begun, struggles involving the military, religious factions, entrenched wealth, and the lifeblood of much of the region -- oil.

There are lessons to be learned meanwhile about the limits of power, in this case American power. Were we as powerful as some believe, both here and elsewhere, we would play a dominant role in the outcome of these struggles. No doubt we have interests. Sadly, oil from the Persian Gulf, and militarily the Fifth Fleet base in Bahrain. Except for trying to identify the winners, and encouraging them to be democratic, however, there is little we can do to shape the outcomes.

Meanwhile, in Washington and Madison, and soon in many other state capitals around the country, we are seeing democracy in action with street demonstrations that don't look all that much different from Cairo and other cities. Democracy is easy when the economic pie is growing. It begins to creak and crack, however, when the pie is shrinking.

The struggle here is whether we will return to a pre-New Deal America with many fewer ladders of opportunity, safety nets for the poor and elderly, and regulatory protections for consumers, workers, and the environment. That is really what this endless political struggle in American regarding the size and role of government is about. There is some evidence to support the theory that the unstated purpose behind so-called "supply side" tax cuts was to create such huge deficits that the domestic role of government would have to return to the age of Herbert Hoover and Calvin Coolidge. Two endless wars have not helped in this regard.

Hold on to your seats. For we are entering a period when we will find out how strong American democracy really is... and what our values really are. When the Tea Party gets the kind of government it claims to want, few Americans are going to like it. But then, of course, we will have to start our struggle for justice and fairness all over again.

Please visit Senator Hart's blog here.