Democracy and Its Discontents

David Brooks of the New York Times just wrote an interesting piece about the political problems facing the United States and the European Union.  He writes that both the U.S. and the European Union are facing a situation where two political constituencies, whom have historically been, when unrestrained, diametrically opposed to one another, have retreated to their extremes with no appreciation for their own weaknesses.  The problems are very real as are the concerns each side maintains with utmost passion.  I find what Mr. Brooks says compelling, relevant and in much need for inclusion in the political conversations going on today.

Democracy is a fragile thing and one that requires an understanding of it biggest weakness – its constituents.  How do you govern a large and disparate group of people, provide for each of their needs, give them the freedom to express their views while also protecting them from discrimination or persecution for their beliefs by others, and so much more by simultaneously representing all and excluding none?  How do you get a consensus to govern such a group while ensuring that decisions are made with prudence and consideration for all without operating as a mob?

Mitch Daniels has recently written a book, Keeping the Republic, that I recommend to anyone interested in what I would consider a thoughtful discourse in what ails American politics.  He touches on the issue of democracy and how it can undo itself.  He quotes Rosseau as saying that, “In the strict sense of the term, a true democracy never existed, and never will exist.  It is against natural order that a great number should govern and that the few should be governed.”  Democracy is more than simply allowing the majority to impose their will; it is both a process and a state of being.  There is a fine line between democracy and mob rule.

Democracy absolutely cannot function without a modicum of respect for those it means to govern as well as an unabashed and resolute commitment to temperance; because the existence of these instills confidence and legitimacy among the public while a lack thereof can be a dangerous place for both elected officials and their constituency.  Political turmoil, economic malaise and violence are staples of public sentiment towards governance they view as illegitimate or unresponsive to their needs.  Elected officials of recent generations have begun to discard moderation and long term views for the whims of their constituency as Mr. Brooks describes as a “mind-set of marketing executives”.

It would behoove these officials to recalibrate their aim on who the real enemy is – themselves.  The business of governing is not one of zero sum but of diplomacy.  To acknowledge the opposing side’s concerns and to work in earnest towards a solution that agrees to all; because a short-lived gain that is destined to be recalled serves no one and in fact only cements a public discontent for democracy and its legitimacy over the long run.

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