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Election 2012 and the Future of American Democracy

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Ten years ago, I authored an unconventional analysis about the future of American democracy. I was concerned about the civic health of the United States; and I posed a rhetorical question -- "Is America Dying?"*

Now -- as we ponder Election 2012 -- it seems appropriate to revisit the uncertain future of our national experiment in democratic ideals.

Is America Dying?

The message of my original essay was simple: America is changing in ways that are important, exciting, and unsettling for the future of American democracy. We are undergoing a democratic metamorphosis that, for better or worse, is transforming our nation and the world; therefore, we owe it to coming generations to deal constructively with these challenges.

For rabid partisan readers, my blunt inquiry is not a rant about the reelection of Barack Obama or the rejection of Mitt Romney. I published my basic essay during George W. Bush's administration, after intense involvement in Washington politics during the Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush years. This is a systemic analysis derived from long-time experience as a political scientist, public official, and "American Dreamer."

Necessity for National Dialogue.

When I left Congress in 1997, I decided to pursue my rhetorical concern -- the possible "dying" of America -- that had intrigued me for many years and that I considered critical as we journey into the 21st century. Consequently, I have spent much of my time lecturing, writing, and trying to encourage a national dialogue about the civic future of American democracy.

I realized the constructive current value of my disturbing proposition about the course of American democracy within the past few months when I started getting calls from various media persons (like a Pulitzer Prize-winning editor here in Alabama and an international politics columnist from London) about my assessment of American democracy in light of the 2012 election campaign. My standard response to such inquiries was that the United States is a decade further along a mindless course toward the "American Federation."

I hope that this series of discussions will rekindle dialogue among interested citizens; more specifically, I hope that it will help readers understand, not only the strengths, but also the fragilities and limitations of the "Great Experiment" of American history.

At this point, it may be useful for me to re-state, very briefly, my unconventional thesis about the evolving experiment of American democracy.

My Thesis of American Democracy.

The original existence of an open natural environment and the subsequent popular expansion of national public authority, working together, have been central to the history and progress of American democracy. The open frontier of the New World established an indelible character of freedom, individualism, and independence; and the popular growth of national public authority created a supportive political environment for equality, security and justice in our young republic. (No one can overlook our history of slavery and discrimination; however, that's a topic for another discussion, which I have written about in a two other books.)

These central forces have shaped America's "Great Experiment" (our progressive pursuit of democratic ideals through limited, representative governance) for two centuries. Combined they provided a favorable systemic setting for American democracy (our magical mix of people, politics, and government) to pursue progressive ideals (such as freedom and equality) while balancing the somewhat contradictory strains of those ideals for a diverse society.

However, America is changing in ways that, while exciting, are unsettling for the future of American democracy. Inevitable limitations of the aforementioned natural environment and national authority -- and growing philosophical tensions over democratic ideals, cultural values, and principles of governance -- are transforming the American democratic system. With the two central forces of American democracy -- a favorable natural environment and expanding national government -- gone awry, our civic mix of people, politics, and government no longer works the way it has in the past. Battered by economic stress and international ill winds, we seem to be tiring of the "Great Experiment" itself.

Elusive Bridge to the Twenty-First Century.

If this discussion is not about political machinations of the moment, then how does my analysis relate to Election 2012? What leads me to revive my unconventional question about the future of American democracy?

The explanation is that, since the end of the Cold War, our country has struggled through almost a quarter-century of divisive elections, with all four presidents -- two Democrats and two Republicans -- aspiring to lead us into a new and better but challenging world. Bush Sr. tried to lead us into a New World Order; but economic problems derailed his service. Clinton yearned to be the leaderly link to a different tomorrow; but personal and political issues distracted him from that mission. Bush 43 proclaimed a new era of compassionate conservatism; but 9/11 plunged him into global and fiscal morass. Obama swept into the White House with inspiring grandeur; but economic crisis and divisive politics have raised questions not only about his vision but the functionality of our national capital.

Unfortunately, the American people seem to be stubbornly split into two camps about what we want America to mean and how we want America to work in a changing world. At the mid-point of Barack Obama's self-declared transformational presidency, we seem even more troubled about the meaning of "America" in the 21st century.

So, Here We Are in 2012.

Thus my original question -- Is America Dying? -- is an even more pressing systemic concern as we contemplate the uncertain fruits of Election 2012.

A fundamentally divided nation has, in its collective wisdom, voted to continue schizophrenic government in Washington. The most important issue, from my perspective, is whether we have learned anything from the past quarter-century. Will President Obama, the House, and the Senate define their conjoined mandate as helping a divided nation in search of the practical civic good? Or will entrenched feudalists interpret electoral success as license to forge their particularistic ambitions and dreams? Will the American people embrace a broader, more civic calling? In the final analysis, can and will we restore the future of American democracy?

Upcoming Posts in This Series.

In following discussions, I will present step-by-step elaborations of my unconventional analysis, updated for America post-Election 2012.

For example, I will explain how I dare ask such an outrageous question about American democracy; I will offer my definitions of "America," "American Democracy," and "dying"; I will argue four propositions about how American may be dying; I will answer the question about whether America is really going to die; and I will conclude with a transformational challenge for our new national leadership.

Special Request for Readers.

I expect many of you will disagree with what I say and will engage in hearty reaction and debate among yourselves about Election 2012. I would especially appreciate your comments about the long-term, systemic, civic future of our "Great Experiment." If you're so inclined, I also suggest that you take a look at my full discussion of these important issues as presented in the original book.

*Disclosure and Acknowledgement: 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.