As I continue my series on the future of American democracy, it seem important to ask whether our democratic distemper has serious, near-term consequence for the survival of the Great Experiment. Are these developments passing digressions, or permanent despair? In short, are we at the tipping point between democratic distemper and dying America?
America historically has demonstrated a mixed and tepid mindset about our collective endeavor; but American society has conducted itself in general accord with the progressive norms of our national democratic experiment. Just as clearly, however, contemporary Americans evidence surprising levels of civic disengagement and dissensus in their attitudes toward American government; and we now seem inclined toward some alternative arrangements for our historic experiment.
Thus this seems to be prime time -- as President Barack Obama enters his legacy years as a self-conscious transformational leader -- for us to consider the future of American democracy.
A Matter of Timing
What makes all of this timely and critical is that our current distemper is taking place simultaneously, cumulatively, and interactively with other important developments. As posited in the preceding propositional observations, (a) the American systemic environment is not as favorably aligned as it has been for most of our history; (b) we have engaged ourselves in an intense philosophical debate about American culture and governance; (c) American democracy no longer works as well as it used to work; and (d) Americans seem to be tiring of the Great Experiment.
To put it another way, public commitment to the essential concepts of our original national democratic endeavor appears increasingly unsteady during fundamentally turbulent times. We seem unsure about American nationalism, democratic ideals, and Republican governance at the same time that our political system is reshaping itself in unpredictable ways. Most importantly, the American people may be tiring of their historic experiment while demanding and assuming immense popular control over the workings of American democracy. This setting of distempered democracy and systemic volatility invites uncomfortable discussion about the aforementioned "ultimate, unhealthy authority" inherent in our Great Experiment.
Undoubtedly, America has functioned successfully in the past without full, popular, national consensus, engagement, and commitment to the Great Experiment; but just as undoubtedly, our historic functional success is no guarantee that we can and will perform as well in the future. Sooner or later, systemic constraints, philosophical debates, and political realities will prove disruptive and challenging to the historical order of American democracy.
In my opinion, and drawing from the propositions and observations presented in this series, "tired" America is trending in patterned fashion and disturbing directions. Increasingly we seem to be revisiting and revising -- sometimes consciously but often unthinkingly -- the original, essential, conceptual elements of our Great Experiment:
(1) First, the American people are experiencing and evidencing a declined sense of themselves as a nation. Societal divergence, centrifugal democracy, and economic globalism are reorienting and diminishing traditional national community.
(2) Secondly, while popularly-expressed support for democratic ideals in general remains strong, in-depth study and public referenda reveal that Americans are developing reservations about the specific application and advancement of these ideals through national government; additionally, some want to elevate cultural values (such as the family, religion, community, and diversity) as central elements -- alongside or above traditional democratic ideals--of our national experiment.
(3) Thirdly, we seem increasingly impatient with our national experiment's difficult, contentious balancing of inconsistent, contradictory, confusing democratic ideals. "Culture-warriors" and "demo-fanatics" drive public debate in troubling philosophical and political directions; and too often we talk about re-arranging the historic framework of limited, representative governance to accommodate contemporary inclinations.
(4) Finally, we seem insufficiently concerned as a nation about the danger of these unsettling tendencies for our democratic endeavor. A sense of civic irrelevancy -- combined with the above-mentioned ailments -- appears to have weakened our commitment to the national experiment in democratic ideals; and there is a disturbing propensity -- both "inside the Beltway" and "out here" -- for individuals, institutions, and communities to simply walk away from our historic democratic experiment in favor of less inspired alternatives.
The danger of these critical times is that eventually, without corrective action, an impatient populace may -- democratically and incrementally -- exercise its ultimate authority and alter our historic version of America in radical ways.
I would like to think that today's developments constitute a case of temporary distemper, or a simple pause, or a few targeted adjustments, or a re-balancing of some of the burden of democratic progress between the federal government and a broader, supportive society. In the long run, some of these developments may be inconsequential or even therapeutic for America.
However, there is a reasonable chance that, early in this new century, we will have to deal with daunting new public problems; and we may have to ask ourselves the final, uncomfortable question posed in my definitional discussion about "America," "American democracy," and "dying": "How far can we pursue democratic ideals through limited, representative governance without succumbing to the inherent, destructive tendencies of democracy?"
Where Are We Going?
My "dying" speculation is an unlikely outcome, but it serves as useful, sobering background for assessing our present predicament. It is worthwhile analysis, not idle speculation, to conclude that these are unhealthy times for America.
Tired America, at a critical juncture, seems to be questioning its Great Experiment, moving -- quite often consonant with democratic principles and processes -- in ways and directions that are contradictory to the historic spirit and course of American democracy.
Fortuitously, California provides an example of where America may be heading; and that is the topic of my next post.
Author's Note: This is the eleventh 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.