These are anxious times for American democracy.
The United States clearly remains the standard, by most accounts, of progressive democracy and "the good life" at this point in world history. But -- as I will argue in this unconventional analysis -- telltale signs of democratic distemper belie our contemporary stature.
Just as importantly, along with these telltale signs of civic distemper, fundamental patterns of American history appear to have erupted into contradictory, confounding turmoil. Two centuries of irresistible democratic nationalization now clash head-on with the equally powerful dynamics of centrifugal democracy.
Little wonder, then, that political scientists and historians are speculating about Election 2012, President Barack Obama, and the "Great Experiment" of American democracy.
Competing Visions for An Uncertain Future.
In many ways, the four presidential elections of the 21st century have reflected the turbulence of American democracy. Elections 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2012 all revealed an American nation bifurcating into two distinct philosophical personalities and cultural societies -- simultaneously competitive, commingled, and interdependent -- each with legitimate but starkly different visions of our national destiny.
On one hand is "Traditional America" -- a historically dominant white society, rooted in rural, small town, middle regions, which subscribes to religious convictions, community values, and relatively conservative government. On the other hand is "Emerging America" -- a growing, eclectic society of relatively liberal and historically disadvantaged citizens in urban and coastal areas who are inclined toward social diversity, moral tolerance, and activist government.
"Traditional America" asserts its right of national control as the historic majoritarian democratic culture. Just as vehemently, "Emerging America" boldly defines itself as the future of our nation, not only in demographic terms but also as the demonstrated political majority of the November election.
Election 2012 and Obama's America.
Interestingly, more so than any recent president, Barack Obama has articulated his mission as our transformational leader. From his dramatic burst onto the national stage at the 2004 Democratic Convention, throughout his 2008 campaign, and, expectedly in his upcoming inauguration as a two-term chief executive, his spoken words proclaim a new and different America. Contrarily, within the first week after his re-election, petitions have flourished in a majority of the states to secede from Obama's America.
The reality is, at this point in our national consciousness and public debate, neither "Traditional America" nor "Emerging America" evidences sufficient comprehension of the transformational ramifications of their differing visions and our raging philosophical civil war.
Furthermore, this cultural bifurcation -- combined with the aforementioned clash between historic democratic nationalization and contemporary centrifugal democracy -- greatly exacerbates the distemperate course of American government and democracy. An America that so proudly proclaims itself "one nation . . . indivisible, with liberty and justice for all" increasingly seems wayward, irrelevant, and ungovernable.
The Fundamental Question.
In this series, I will ask some tough questions about troubled, transforming America. For example, how do we make sense of our basic democratic distemper? Can we deal with the political realities of our changing world? Will we address the philosophical challenges of the 21st century? Or --rhetorically but most fundamentally -- "Is America dying?"
Therefore, as President Obama embarks upon a second term -- with his transformational hopes and legacy in the balance -- it is worthwhile to ask some serious questions, despite the pain of their articulation, about problematic aspects of the American system.
So I ask the rhetorical question -- "Is America dying?" -- as an heuristic exercise to encourage constructive discussion about the future of American democracy. While Socratic inquiry is a time-honored way to confront, head on, the elusive and disconcerting possibilities of our transformational experience, I anticipate that some will reject reflexively such pejorative terminology. However I hope that this provocative analysis will help focus needed attention on some of the enduring principles and contemporary challenges of American democracy.
Propositional Observations about Dying America.
In the next few posts I will explore the condition of American democracy through a series of propositional observations:
(1) The favorable systemic environment of American democracy has disappeared.
(2) We have entrapped American democracy within a philosophical civil war.
(3) American democracy no longer works the way it has in the past.
(4) America seems to be tiring of its historic Great Experiment.
My theoretical supposition (which I will examine in upcoming discussions) is that, if these four propositions are true, then, systemically, America is dying.
(SPOILER ALERT: I have no doubt about the survival of America -- the real mystery is "What kind of America will survive our contemporary disarray?")
In my next post, I will explain how I came to my outrageous notion that America may be dying.
*Author's Note: This is the second in a series of discussions about Election 2012 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.