Why Is Democracy Failing?

Why is the rule of  law so important?   What characteristics separate a democracy from a dictatorship or oligarchy?  Why does the form of government play such a large role in the health and welfare of its people?

The rule of  law provides a system that holds people responsible for their actions.  Each citizen must be treated equally.  Even the most powerful are held accountable by the courts and are punished for their transgressions.

The rule of law works if the actions of elected officials are not arbitrary or capricious.  The laws, rules and regulations enacted by the people’s representatives must reflect a concern for the communal good.

These equitable concepts are deeply embedded in the U.S. Constitution.  It is assumed that the rule of law will protect our freedoms and that the right to be safe and secure in our homes will be respected.  The question then arises whether we have the wisdom and discipline to preserve, protect and defend these rights and privileges.

In the U.S., a legal  system has been established that tries to balance the needs of the individual with the needs of the community.  It tries to insure the greatest possible good for the greatest number of people.  Yet, there is unease in the body politic.  People recognize that something is wrong.  Things are not working.  The middle class is shrinking.  More and more people are falling into poverty.  Wages have remained stagnant.  Good manufacturing jobs have fled overseas.  The disparity between rich and poor has significantly widened and continues to do so.  The rich get richer.  The privileged seem to go unpunished and unrepentant.  The Congress is detached from the needs of its constituents.  Senators and Congressmen are primarily concerned with their re-election.  They want to stay in the exclusive world of Washington, D.C.  Special interests get preferential treatment as a result of their campaign contributions.  The checks and balances so brilliantly  incorporated into the Constitution have been circumvented.

Why does Democracy seem to be failing?  One reason may be that democracy requires intelligent and dedicated leaders.  It requires leaders that exhibit the political will to vote for what the country needs.  It also requires leaders who will resist the short-term interests advocated by political operatives and lobbyists.

People sense that there is no longer a level playing field.  In the name of deregulation, free market capitalism has turned into a rapacious, unfair and unequal system where the winner takes all.  The strong prevail and the weak get crushed.

The rich no longer want to share.  The middle class live from paycheck to paycheck.  Their job security is non-existent.  Their ability to raise a family with two parents working full-time jobs is under attack.  Is the country able to survive its leaders?  The accepted wisdom is that these problems are transitory.  The pendulum swings back and forth and that, over time, the system will return to equilibrium.

However, there is another view.  It is the belief that the American Century is over.  It posits that the preeminence of the United States was approximately one hundred years, that is, from 1890 to 1990.  It is now in the position of Great Britain after WWII.  The USA is broke.  It is the biggest debtor nation in the world.  It has and is living beyond its means.  Its national debt, its trade-imbalances and yearly deficits are unsustainable.  Just as Great Britain saw its power slowly decline and its Empire disintegrate,  so will the United States  experience the same phenomena in a shorter period of time.  The melting pot has turned into a cauldron of special interests.

The tragedy is that this decline is not inevitable.  It is self-inflicted.  The lack of political leadership, the lack of economic discipline, and the lack of shared communal values have undermined the country’s strengths.  The strengths of the U.S. political system is universal education, political accountability, a Constitution and a Bill of Rights, an independent judiciary, and a representative government.  The rule of law was designed to promote societal and economic values that benefit everyone and not just a privileged few.

The weaknesses of the U.S. system is a lack of political leadership; the corrosive effect of campaign contributions;   of the minority; the influence of  lobbyists; the culture wars; anti-governmental attitudes; individualism over communal needs; narcissism versus discipline; the lack of long-term planning; and the fragmentation of society.

The U.S. government waits for disasters to happen before it fixes a problem.  It is reactive instead of proactive.  An example of this gridlock is the national fiscal crisis.  The government is experiencing budget deficits, trade deficits, and a national debt that are unsustainable.   The Congress is well aware of these facts but it refuses to act.

In contrast, dictatorial regimes seem to have some advantages over democracies.  They do not have to be concerned with political gridlock when trying to implement national goals.  They can respond quickly to a perceived crisis.  Long range planning allows them to take advantage of their political and economic competitors.  The oligarchy that rules the P.R.C. (China) has set an agenda in which whole communities and villages have been sacrificed to achieve enormous national goals, e.g., The Three Gorges Dam.

Oligarchies also have the advantage and luxury of  time.  They are able to be patient.  They are not driven to make hasty decisions on insufficient information as a result of the 24-hour news cycle.  The influence of lobbyists is absent, although it must be admitted that corruption is rampant.

For example, in order to maintain power and control, the Chinese leadership has made a devil’s pact with its people.   Political freedom is not tolerated but, in exchange, its citizens are free to become rich.  There is a tacit understanding that says “Stay out of politics, accept the primacy of the Communist Party, and you can make as much money as you wish.”

The Chinese Communist Party prohibits political dissent in order to maintain its monopoly.  It forbids unauthorized street demonstrations; protests, referendums or initiatives;  opposition political parties; civil liberties; criticizing or questioning the rule of the political elite; and disputed elections.  The Communist Party maintains its dominance by nominating all candidates for political office.

In the last twenty-five years, this social compact has generated an economic miracle.  China has become the factory floor to the world.  It has hollowed-out the manufacturing base of the United States.  China has sown the seeds of surpassing the U.S.A. as the most powerful economic power in the world by the middle of the 21st Century.

The economic, political, social and cultural survival of the United States is at risk.  Yet, many people in the United States are still unaware of the threat’s severity.  We have a sense of entitlement.  We seem to believe that our country’s preeminence is permanent and not necessarily re-earned every generation.

The young people of the United States may be the first generation in a hundred years whose standard of living is less than that of their parents.  The flexibility of our democratic institutions rests, in part, upon the existence of this vast middle class.  In the past, everyone believed that with hard work, a good education and perseverance they could increase their standard of living.  They thought they would be able to leave to their children a world better than the one they had inherited.  Those beliefs and dreams are now under siege.  Young people now question whether their future standard of living will be better for themselves and their children.

This economic uneasiness can lead to political instability in the manner that was experienced during the Great Depression.  What is more troubling is that our leaders do not seem to understand the immediacy of the problems and the depth of their dangers.  They very freedoms we hold most may not be sustainable with a shrinking economic pie and the perception that the rich have abandoned the middle class.  Do our leaders, political and economic, have the will and the courage to make the hard decisions that may not come to fruition for a generation?

An example of a country where the rule of law is non-existent, is modern-day Russia.    Corruption is endemic to the system.  It permeates the entire governmental, judicial and social environment.  Its citizens have no rights upon which they can rely.  The courts are subject to political influence.  Domestic and foreign businessmen cannot make enforceable contracts that will be devoid of political machinations.  Premier Putin and the remnants of the old KGB leadership now run a criminal state.  As a result, after the initial euphoria of the Yelsin years, foreign investment in Russia has significantly declined and continues to do so.  Foreign companies have had their property appropriated by court order under the most pretextual of circumstances.

There is no independent judiciary.  The law is seen as a tool of the powerful.  The courts are avoided because their decisions are politically influenced.

Italy is another example of a country where the rule of law is unreliable.  Its economy is stagnating because it has a culture of corruption.  Despite the fact that it has been part of the European Union for over two generations, its economy is still one of the weakest in Western Europe.  Businessmen cannot rely upon contracts.  They cannot depend upon the courts to enforce their agreements.   The courts and the law are not to be trusted.  Preferably, they are to be avoided at all costs because the powerful and the privileged control them.

The economic crisis of 2009 should serve as a warning.  Many of our most powerful institutions failed.  Our regulatory system did not do its job.  Peoples’ greed and corruption circumvented our rules, regulations and laws.  The disdain of the wealthy and the powerful for the little guy was revealed in all its ugliness.  Short-term thinking prevailed with predictable consequences.  The lack of political leadership and political will compounded the problems.

Human nature will not change.  Greed and fear are part of the human condition.  What we can do is enact and enforce laws that are fair and equitable.

Copyright 2010

All Rights Reserved

Arthur F. Licata,

12 Post Office Square

Boston, MA. 02109


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