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Pierre Guerlain Headshot

Democracy in America? It Would Be a Good Idea

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This is a Tocqueville meets Gandhi moment. Gandhi famously answered a question about Western civilization by retorting: "it would be a good idea," suggesting that the colonial West was not civilized. The shutdown of the Federal government is but a symptom of a much larger problem. Analysts have pointed out that the far right-wing of the Republican party is gunning for Obama and scaring the daylights out of so-called moderate Republicans. Even Wall Street is apparently stymied by the hotheads of the Tea Party. Those Paul Krugman calls the "Boehner bunglers" do not care about the health of Americans, nor of the American economy and could not care less, they imagine, about the world economy. They are Thomas Frank's "wrecking crew" who have "beggared the nation."

Who do these wreckers and bunglers represent? Are they the elected representatives of the American people? In their excellent and incredibly well-researched book, Dollarocracy John Nichols and Robert McChesney point out all the schemes Republicans have resorted to game the electoral system. Democrats had a majority of votes in the House of Representatives election yet not majority of seats. This is due to unfair redistricting, voter exclusion, and mostly the power of money, which they appropriately call the "Money Power." Dollarocracy is a neologism for plutocracy and many writers have pointed out that the U.S. is a plutocracy or an oligarchy in which only a few get to decide what happens in Washington. The few are the rich and corporations. Sheldon Wolin in his landmark book, Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism, had already identified the problem.

The Tea Party wreckers are a minority within a minority party and yet they have the power to wreck everything around them. In Congressional elections the turnout is low for many feel voting has become irrelevant, but their depoliticization is encouraged by the media and the money power. The voice of the underprivileged and the middle class is not heard. What happens within the Beltway is totally at odds with what the people want. This diagnosis is well-known and anyone who cares about the U.S. and wants to know how it ticks is aware of it. (See Domhoff )

Although racism does play a part in the current shenanigans and also anti-feminism, which is common among those who favor guns and the death penalty but oppose abortion, it would be an error to imagine that the wreckers are primarily racists or sexists. They may welcome a Herman Cain and a Michele Bachmann while depriving the poor of any color, creed or background from access to food stamps.

While the shutdown is happening in the U.S., "the whole world is watching" (to adapt a phrase used by Todd Gitlin as the title of one of his books). The U.S. had already lost a lot of its prestige with its constant wars of choice, its use of drones and its outlandish TV debates during election campaigns. Now, the promoter of democracy the world over appears as a bunch of childish politicians who bicker, break up their institutions and foul their own nest. Democracy has brighter colors in Finland, Iceland, Germany or Sweden. Britain, Brazil and France, for all their many problems also have a more vibrant democracy than the U.S.

While ALEC happily wrecks institutions, blocks people from voting and destroys the environment, and while the 1 percent arrogantly pocket more and more wealth when the poor get poorer, the world keeps changing and the nation which believes itself exceptional is losing its grip and endangering its hegemony.

The Chinese have to contend with a very unfair system but they may rejoice about the havoc caused by Tea Party bunglers. Brazilians may find compensation for the NSA bugging the computers and phones of their leaders in this picture of Uncle Sam paralyzed by its own imbecility. Instead of being the city upon a hill, a beacon of hope, the U.S. is fast becoming a laughing-stock among nations: a permanent warrior which keeps killing but also keeps losing wars, an expert at shooting itself in the foot. The professor of democracy should take lessons from others and buy a looking-glass to realize how pathetic its exceptionalism is in the eyes of others.

There are "Americas" that the world likes, it liked Obama when it thought Obama could return the U.S. to its senses and stop permanent war, it liked Occupy Wall Street, and many areas of the world from Greece to Spain to Egypt and Tunisia felt a bond with the outraged protesters in New York or Seattle. The world likes American creativity, artists, singers and philosophers. I personally like America's alternative media, for instance the wonderful and fair Democracy Now! TV network. Democracy Now! Actually quite a good motto, echoed in Spain by the Democracia Real slogan.

With the shutdown the U.S. can expect a lot of schadenfreude in all the areas where the U.S.'s armed fist has been active. This schadenfreude, of course, is misguided for like the poor and middle class in the U.S., the world can only suffer from the wreckers' games on Capitol Hill. A strong America that does not choose war and drones but gets its house in order, repairs its almost defunct democracy and starts greening its industrial activities might indeed become a beacon for all the peoples aspiring to be free. There is no magic wand to get there and it can only be a long drawn out process. If the wreckers win, the U.S. will go where empires go to die.