America is changing in ways that are important and unsettling for the future of American democracy; and America's elected officials and democracy experts seemingly are too politically timid or too theoretically limited to sound the alarm.
However, candidly examining the realities and vulnerabilities of American democracy is an uncomfortable but necessary enterprise. Election 2012 and the looming legacy stage of the Obama presidency provide timely impetus and urgency to such inquiry.
As Fareed Zakaria explains in The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad (2007):
Silenced by fears of being branded "antidemocratic" we have no way to understand what might be troubling about the ever-increasing democratization of our lives. We assume that no problem could ever be caused by democracy, so when we see social, political, and economic maladies we shift blame here and there, deflecting problems, avoiding answers, but never talking about the great transformation that is at the center of our political, economic, and social lives (16-17).
If Barack Obama -- our just reelected and self-declared transformational president -- will lead Americans in vigorous debate about our trending systemic condition, our nation perhaps can deal successfully with the challenges of the 21st century.
In the rest of this post, I will try to depict the systemic realities of our civic condition.
A quick reference to a field of analysis known as systems theory will help clarify my dying thesis; it also will provide the transformational framework for the remainder of this series.
Systems analysis has proven particularly useful in explaining how various organic entities (such as living animals, successful corporations, and effective organizations) work procedurally and substantively. Technically speaking, a system is a regularly interacting or interdependent group of elements forming a unified, functioning whole; physiologically (the applicable perspective for my analysis), a system is a group of bodily organs that together perform the vital functions of "life."
More pertinent to our discussion, organic systems theory, as presented by David Easton in A Systems Analysis of Political Life (1965), helps us understand how nations succeed or fail in the face of significant challenges to their political systems. According to Easton, "a political system can be designated as those interactions through which values are authoritatively allocated for a society"; and "in a given society, the systems other than the political system constitute a source of many influences that create and shape the conditions under which the political system itself most operate" (21-22).
Furthermore, Easton elaborates:
One of the important reasons for identifying these essential variables is that they give us a way of establishing when and how the disturbances acting upon a system threaten to stress it. Stress will be said to occur when there is a danger that the essential variables will be pushed beyond what we may designate as their critical range. What this means is that something may be happening in the environment--the system suffers total defeat at the hands of an enemy, or widespread disorganization in and disaffection from the system is aroused by a severe economic crisis. Let us say that as a result, the authorities are consistently unable to make decisions or if they strive to do so, the decisions are no longer regularly accepted as binding. Under these conditions, authoritative allocations of values are no longer possible and the society would collapse for want of a system of behavior to fulfill one of its vital functions (22-24).
This brief review of demand/support balance, the input/output relationship, and our changing systemic environment provides insight for understanding evolutionary developments in contemporary America.
Diagraming the Demise of American Democracy.
Take a look at my "Systemic Model of Dying America," which depicts pertinent elements, variables, and relationships of the changing American system through a diagrammatic illustration of Historical America (as our nation has functioned for the past two centuries) and, hypothetically, Dying America.
My systemic model is an admittedly simple presentation, since it is designed to emphasize the broad outlines of our developing democratic predicament without the clutter of exacerbating or irrelevant problems. The value of this model is that it demonstrates graphically and concisely the theoretic foundation of my general inquiry; and it provides the conceptual framework for specific propositional observations in the next few discussions.
The rationale of America's Great Experiment -- and the basis of my model -- is the idea that democratic ideals (even competing, contradictory ideals) can best be pursued by a diverse people through a loose framework of mediating political mechanisms and popular but restrained governance. Furthermore, that experiment works only under certain conditions. In other words, American democracy (our mix of people, politics, and government) was designed and has evolved within an environment of increasing openness and opportunity and support -- relatively free from any rigid, stagnant, stifling orthodoxy of excessive or unworkable demands, ideals, and values.
Unhealthy changes in that supportive systemic environment obviously would create tremendous negative pressures on American democracy; and any changes among the organic elements (our people, politics, and government) of American democracy would further complicate our experiment. Eventually, these changes might begin to impact, negatively, our system of governance -- and our pursuit of democratic ideals.
Historical America. This diagram shows American democracy pursuing democratic ideals within a favorable systemic environment (shaped originally by open natural conditions and sustained by the popular expansion of national public authority).
This favorable environment provides positive inputs (both demands and supports) to allow and encourage American democracy (a civic people, functional political machinery, and effective government) to practically mix and implement national democratic ideals. These positive outputs then feed back into the environment for systemic regeneration.
Obviously, this diagram ignores many democratic flaws and undemocratic manifestations in America's history; but it adequately conveys the systemic nature of our experiment for comparison with contemporary developments and future challenges.
Dying America. This transformational diagram projects struggling American democracy at the center of a troubled system.
According to my hypothetical depiction of "Dying America," our closing natural conditions and declining support for national authority have produced an unfavorable systemic environment for American democracy; furthermore, a philosophical civil war has entrapped, or "boxed" American democracy in a destructive fight over ideals, values, and governance.
Within this altered setting, an uncivic people and broken political machinery press ominously on beleaguered government, crippling day-to-day governance and more generalized aspects of American public life. American democracy functions very poorly under such circumstances, and our national democratic pursuit slows to a contentious crawl. The resulting democratic distemper then feeds back into the system as recycling negative environment.
Over time, without correction, this pattern could translate into systemic degeneration and, hypothetically, the death of America.
Thus, at this point of our discussion, the immediate questions are: (1) Are my four specific propositions about dying America true? And (2) how will President Obama and Congressional leaders deal with our current democratic distemper?
In the next four posts, I will address my specific propositions about the functional vitality and future of America's Great Experiment.
Author's Note: This is the sixth in a sixteen-part series of discussions about Election 2012, Barack Obama, and the future of American democracy. This series includes edited, updated material from my book, The Future of American Democracy: A Former Congressman's Unconventional Analysis (2002). I'm grateful to University Press of America for allowing me to borrow from that publication for my discussions on Huffington Post.