Topic: Government & Politics
The beating heart of democracy
is not freedom. Experience shows us that freedom is a malleable concept
that can become a pawn in a zero-sum game. A womans freedom to choose
whether to bear her child impedes the childs freedom to live. A white
mans freedom to choose his friends, associates and customers can
diminish a black mans freedom to live and do what he wants. Increasing
the total amount of productive freedom is the mission of a democracy,
but not its heart.
Its heart is trust.
The theory that the best government is government for the people, by
the people relies on the belief that Americans can be trusted to determine
their own fate without recklessly harming and exploiting others. A representative
democracy, like ours, asserts that the people will choose representatives
who will govern wisely, responsible, and selflessly—representatives
who can be trusted. And representatives who can be trusted must, by
necessity, be capable of trust. They must trust the people who elected
them to be sufficiently informed, civically responsible and wise to
accept difficult decisions made for the good of the nation as a whole,
even if they represent sacrifices for particular voters or voting blocks.
They must trust their colleagues in government to share their dedication
and willingness to work for the best interests of the nation rather
than narrow self-interest. They must trust their leaders, without whom
they will devolve into an ineffective, bickering mob. Most of all, they
must trust the system of democracy that they serve.
The initial collapse of the
700 billion dollar bailout plan in Congress was the most vivid in a
series of events that demonstrate a catastrophic deficit of trust in
America. Certainly, there were many factors involved, including the
fact that nobody was entirely sure that the expensive, perhaps panicky
measure was necessary or would accomplish what it was supposed to do.
But the main reason the first bill failed to be passed was the same
reason that critical immigration legislation failed, and that so many
other initiatives have failed to achieve consensus: a massive breakdown
in trust on all sides of the democratic process. The ominous implications
of this go far beyond the bailout, ultimately passed in corrupted form,
and the current financial crisis. American democracy is experiencing
a crisis of trust that threatens the government, the culture, and the
American way of life.
Who is responsible? Everyone
is responsible. Historians and social scientists have convincingly chronicled
the erosion of trust in American institutions, beginning with President
Kennedys assassination in 1963. But the past eight years accelerated
a self-destructive process that already needed desperately to be stopped.
There is a scene in the 1970s
horror film Poltergeist, phony-looking by todays special effects
standards but disturbing at the time, where a character looks in the
bathroom mirror and sees a bit of lose skin on his face. He picks at
it, and a bloody chunk of his face falls in the sink. Panicked, he continues
to pick at his face until he claws his entire face off. When I first
saw the scene in a movie theater, I found it as silly as it was horrific:
why would anyone keep picking at his face if it was coming off? But
that is exactly what Republicans, Democrats, the media and the public
have been doing to the face of democracy.
Democratic talking head Paul
Begala, a former Clinton aide and host of the late-and-not-lamented
CNN show Crossfire, recently called President Bush a high functioning
moron. To the extent that Begala, perhaps the slimiest of the Clinton
familiars (if one doesnt count the despicable Dick Morris), has any
credibility as a serious analyst, he is using it to destroy respect
and credibility of the nations president in a time of domestic crisis
and war. Conservative radio pundits routinely accuse liberals in our
Congress of hating America, implying that their policy initiatives
are aimed at weakening and undermining the country. Democrats tell the
public that all Republicans care about is helping their corporate friends
and lining their pockets. Republicans tell the public that the Democratic
Party is determined to destroy core American liberties, and is bewitched
by environment fanatics to stop human commerce and the progress of civilization.
Our elections have been fixed. Our representatives are bought and paid
for. Increasing numbers of previously sane and rational citizens accept
wild conspiracy theories that hold our own government responsible for
the destruction of the World Trade Center. Activists for minority rights
encourage paranoid beliefs that the government launched the AIDS virus
to kill African Americans.
Meanwhile, those in a position
to prove these hyperbolic critics wrong have seemingly resolved to make
the worst characterizations seem plausible. President Bush tolerated
administration hacks and incompetents out of misplaced loyalty or inattention:
there is no excuse for allowing the likes of Alberto Gonzalez to attain,
endure and disgrace himself in an office as critical as Attorney General.
Given the responsibility of working at the center of our nations
financial system, with the investments and futures of millions of Americans
depending on their attention and judgement, Americas banking executives,
investors, insurers and financiers chose greed, irresponsible risk and
personal enrichment over responsibility. Charged with oversight of our
financial systems, regulatory agencies and Congress were reckless, ignorant,
and arrogant—and then engaged in finger-pointing and spin, turning
their lack of care into a lack of accountability. Anyone who really
thinks the current crisis was not equally fueled by both political parties
is biased beyond reason.
Our leaders can not be trusted
to lead. Our teachers can not be trusted to teach. Our religious leaders
can not be trusted to live by the principles they preach to us. Our
journalists are unfair and biased. Our sports heroes cheat.
In the midst of this depression
of trust, two presidential candidates are appealing, as they must, to
citizens to trust them. But one candidate is the nominee of the
same political party that has most recently presided over and fueled
the collapse of trust. His supporters encourage irrational suspicion
that his opponent is a secret Muslim, a friend of terrorists, and anti-American.
The other candidate is a cipher, an unproven and untested leader who
has yet to lead, and who has allowed his supporters to sow further distrust
in the system to achieve victory. Is either candidate trustworthy?
All we can do, in October of
2008, is hope
.and trust. But the nations trust has been abused
and mismanaged for a very long time, and like fossil fuel, it cannot
meet our vital long-term needs without planning, sacrifice, and care.
And unlike fossil fuels, there are no alternatives.