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Is Democracy’s Sun Setting?

August 08, 2013

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Is Democracy’s Sun Setting?

So where are we with this democracy business? Last time I brought it up I left you with Robert A. Heinlein’s time traveler:

“How were things when you left? Especially, how is the United States getting along with its Noble Experiment….They still have elections and all that?”

“The last time I looked, yes.”

“Oh, wonderful. Fantastic, simply fantastic…”

It’s not clear that American democracy, as it has developed to the present, really is so wonderful. One of our big political parties somehow manages to market itself as the party of the Little Guy while owning the allegiance of all the Big Guys in town. (The biggest of them all is second-largest shareholder in the party’s main propaganda organ.) The other party is heavily favored by non-Hispanic white voters yet is in financial thrall to donors and interest groups determined to drown that voter segment in a sea of cheaper immigrants.

“It’s not clear that American democracy, as it has developed to the present, really is so wonderful.”

When asked, voters show strong preferences for policies that neither major party will touch with a ten-foot pole. Both parties are united in support of policies with no detectable constituencies. States and municipalities, blessed with all the democracy you could wish for, sink into insolvency and decay.

Public approval of Congress has been on a declining trend for a decade; the current “approve” percentage is 15. The president is at 48 percent. The Supreme Court—may as well touch all bases—is at 43 percent, an all-time low according to Gallup.

Across the Pacific, meanwhile, the world’s largest non-democracy now has an interstate highway system, a corps of astronauts, and a second aircraft carrier. Even on the gloomiest interpretation (for which you can depend on Gordon Chang), their GDP is growing three times faster than ours.

So is democracy’s sun setting? Is there some better way to manage a post-industrial society—a society of Twitterers, online consumers, and robotized service functions, of MOOC diplomas, consumer genomics, and (well, soon) self-driving cars, of sub-replacement fertility rates and swelling numbers of centenarians?

These glum thoughts were inspired by the January/February issue of Foreign Affairs, which ran two articles with opposing views on democracy in China.

The first, by venture capitalist Eric X. Li, argued that the Chinese Communist Party has found a successful model for governing China. Li is careful not to claim any sort of universality for the ChiCom model:

It cannot be exported. But its success does show that many systems of political governance can work when they are congruent with a country’s culture and history.

Foreign Affairs is in most public libraries; or you can watch Li deliver his ideas in a video lecture here. He’s a vivacious speaker and a good writer.

He starts off the video presentation by speaking of his childhood indoctrination in pure Marxism—all of humanity marching forward on a preordained course through different “modes of production” until reaching the end of history in communism. The Chinese, says Li, bought the whole Marxist package.

Then he switches to the replacement post-Soviet meta-narrative popularized by Francis Fukuyama, with its different end of history: worldwide liberal democracy. “But this time the Chinese didn’t buy it. Fool me once….” Both grand historical schemas are, says Li, equally illusory.

He goes on to tell us how adaptable the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been, at least since Mao’s departure. It is now, he claims, a very pure meritocracy, carefully watching the ascent of capable managers through ever-higher levels of command.

Of the 25 Politburo members before the 18th Party Congress [last November], 19 had run provinces larger than most countries in the world….A person with Barack Obama’s pre-presidential professional experience would not even be the manager of a small county in China’s system.

Some of Li’s essay/talk overlaps with Richard McGregor’s book The Party, which I wrote about on this site a couple of years ago.

The counter-article in that same issue of Foreign Affairs is “Democratize or Die” by political economist Yasheng Huang. This writer isn’t as much fun to read as Eric X. Li, and I have no corresponding video to link to, but Huang makes a good case for the defense.

He concedes that a person with Barack Obama’s near-blank résumé would not have risen far in Chinese politics, but he points out that Party boss Bo Xilai, who ran a corrupt little empire in southwest China until his chief of police tried to defect to the USA, looked set fair to ride that meritocratic escalator all the way to the Politburo. Bo goes on trial for corruption and abuse of power this week; his wife has already confessed to murder.

Huang is right: The notion of a streamlined, efficient dictatorship in which the mess and clamor of democracy is stilled and the trains run on time has been with us all through the modern age and has seduced people smarter than Eric X. Li (and with less money invested in the system).

Li has a point, too, though. The CCP has proved more adaptable than any of us thought thirty—or twenty, or ten—years ago. Absent some horrid natural catastrophe or foolish military adventure, they could go on for decades, although probably spawning ever-increasing numbers of local gangster-despots like Bo. And if the present-day Chinese empire is to be held together, with its unhappy subject populations in the vast territories of Tibet and Eastern Turkestan, a dictatorship is necessary.

The drift of our own political culture seems to be confirming the Founders’ intuition that representative government can only work in a population possessed of some minimum level of virtue—thrift, restraint, industriousness, stoicism in the face of misfortune, willingness to defer gratification, and concern for the common good.

Is there still that much virtue in the United States? Or has our virtue leaked away through our gadgets, our infinity of pleasures, and our culture of preening “identity”? I suppose we shall find out.

 

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