As the size of a community increases, democracy inevitably transforms into representative democracy, which brings a number of immediate problems. Many people, for example, become represented by persons they voted against. Government also becomes more remote, with individual citizens unaware of many of its intricacies. When a community is composed of irreconcilable factions, democracy is hard pressed to produce good governance. But mature democracies in which leaders balance competing views and compromise on issues can provide competent and respected governance.
Unfortunately, several intrinsic elements undermine this potential, particularly:
In the end, all politics is not only local, but personal, with decision-makers understandably reluctant to take actions which hurt them individually and inclined to "trade favors" with others. Democratic institutions become more and more encrusted with legacy procedures and democracy becomes more and more unresponsive to the general welfare. This is sclerosis, a disease characterized by increasing difficulty in performing routine tasks - the body's systems simply become hardened and no longer function efficiently. This clearly is applicable to democratic bodies as well as human ones.
The US Situation
The United States is now experiencing an economic recovery that is disturbingly superficial. Many basic indicators are doing well, but unemployment remains stubbornly high, so for millions, the recovery is no recovery at all. Against this background, the US legislative system has become increasingly dysfunctional and polarized. We have reached a point that the accumulated entitlements and favored treatments are weighing heavily on the system.
There is no simple description of the problem; rather it is a culmination of long-standing trends:
Every day the news includes dozens of examples of groups, big and small, strongly protecting their own favored positions without balancing voices speaking for the general welfare - a few random examples:
- A new push to strengthen mine safety faced determined resistance from coal mine owners;
- Although most farm subsidies go to farms with average annual revenue exceeding $200,000, reducing them is extraordinarily difficult;
- Even though an alternate engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has been opposed by both the Bush and Obama administrations, it still enjoys broad bipartisan support in the House because it provides jobs for constituents;
- Junk mail supposedly pays its own way, though it is hard to understand why it cost 75 cents to deliver a three-ounce letter but only 11 cents to deliver a three-ounce catalog.
- Unions are intimidating companies to eliminate secret ballot requirements in union-organizing elections.
Vested interests naturally resist change. But the core problem is that this does not simply apply to a handful of rich or powerful constituents, but to thousands, millions, of everyday people who also protect their own individual interests, particularly personal, short-term interests - their organization sends junk mail, or their job depends on a government program, or their own small subsidy is more important to them than the outsized subsidy to someone else, or their company profits are squeezed by some regulation.
But, because of sustained growth, America was able to avoid this upheaval. Immigrants provided an underclass, but growth made America the Land of Opportunity, where they could work themselves up into the middle class, with the underclass replaced by still newer immigrants. Now globalization has undermined this upward flow; many more people have been tumbling down the ladder of success than climbing up it. Immigration has become a weakness as immigrants are basically consigned to a permanent underclass; merging with the chronic unemployed, they form a growing disaffected population. The highest incarceration rate in the world starkly attests to this disaffection, as do continuous reports of murder, misery and mayhem. America is becoming a Land of Stagnation, with members of the underclass pushed into increasingly desperate and often irrational violence. The 1965 Watts riots strikingly demonstrated the power of pent up frustration; two aspects are notable: the rioters burned their own neighborhoods and the events did not spread. In the contrast, the recent Occupy movement rapidly spread nationwide, though it did not erupt into any significant violence. But now one can easily imagine, for instance, not only unruly mobs firebombing upscale neighborhoods but the example spreading to other localities. On another scale, the 2002 sniper attacks in Washington showed how just two determined individuals could terrorize a city for an extended period, while the recent onslaught of a single angry arsonist caused widespread turmoil (and several million dollars damage) in Los Angeles. It is such internal disruption that could devastate the nation, as it devastated Europe starting a century ago.
The central economic problem remains unrecognized: the Era of Economic Growth is grinding to a close; the economy needs to be realigned to function in a steady state-condition. Such a basic economic realignment would be difficult enough without a sclerotic government whose dysfunction is much more deeply ingrained into American society than is generally recognized. The conservative focus on smaller government directly addresses economic imbalances. But the challenge is to identify those pieces of the government which are less important (or even detrimental) to the general welfare. Any significant rebalancing would involve trimming thousands of programs which will adversely affect millions of vocal and influential voters. This is unlikely to happen without widespread, coherent electoral pressures from the lower classes or growing violence leading to a major crisis situation. Economic crisis meets democratic sclerosis.