Democracy, We Hardly Knew Ye

Over a generation ago, Jean-Paul Sartre spoke of the impending crisis in Europe. “She’s done for,” he wrote, “a truth which is not pleasant to state but of which we are all convinced, are we not, fellow-Europeans, in the marrow of our bones?” He went on to explain the feeling of despair that had permeated the European collective subconscious, layperson even more so than statesman. Popular sentiment almost categorically foreboded the inevitable end, always appended with a possible remedy that neither its speaker nor anyone else took seriously. Men had simply lost faith in the great Europe, convinced by events that she was “running headlong into the abyss.”

Obviously Europe has managed to save herself, by what means must be the subject of a different pen than mine. And I do not recall her past crisis to make the case that America faces the same situation today. My claim is more timid: the parallel can be drawn not with a current crisis in America, but with a current crisis in a concept that is perhaps so intertwined with American identity that its dissolution would necessarily entail that of the latter. I am speaking of course of democracy, which shares all the ominous traits of Sartre’s Europe with little sign of its resilience and ability for self-preservation.

Every opportunity is taken to remind us of the importance of our democracy. It is even used as a battle cry, perhaps now more than in 1776. Yet in 1776 men believed it; in 2006 it is but a hollow phrase, and everyone knows it. Few would care to seriously entertain the argument that Thomas Jefferson’s democracy shares more than its name in common with the democracy of America the Superpower. Some hold today’s democracy to be an improvement, after all Jefferson’s democracy excluded a majority of the population. Others argue that modern democracy has been hijacked by corporate interests and is thus inferior to the purity of Jefferson’s democracy.

The consensus is, however, surprisingly broad that democracy in Super-America is taxonomically distinct from democracy in Revolutionary America. Everyone from your local taxi driver to the comedians on late night television tacitly recognizes that what we garb as democracy these days is at best a plutocracy slightly mitigated by vestigial traits of an earlier epoch. This crisis of democracy has spurred numerous interpretations and, just as in Sartre’s time, a nearly infinite number of proposed remedies.

Before I succumb to the urge to add my proposals on top of the pile, I think it worthwhile to outline some of the most common interpretations in popular sentiment. The draw towards cynicism is perhaps the strongest currently. Democracy is dead, we will all soon be pledging allegiance to Wal-Mart, and there’s really nothing to do about it except enjoying the low prices.

Others are more optimistic and attribute blame for the crisis of democracy that implicitly carries a solution. Some blame the press. The ability to disseminate information on a grand scale is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, all tied to corporate interests. This precludes the development and exchange of free ideas and rigorous debate, the real backbone of democracy. The implicit solution is to effect a more decentralized and independent press, a daunting task indeed. Others blame the people themselves, after all, “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” In this view the first step toward redemption is cultivating an incisive and politically oriented populace.

The conflict theorists say that they’ve been right all along. Politics, they say, is simply a struggle for control of the state, and the more powerful classes nearly always get their way because they have superior means of mobilization. The road towards rescuing democracy therefore consists of greater mobilization of the populace.

While all the above interpretations have some validity, the cynics perhaps less than others, my bias towards sociology inclines me to favor the conflict theorists. If democracy is to be anything other than the most prized word in the warmongers’ arsenal, a large mobilization unseen since the 1960s may be necessary. The most obvious targets should be the most blatant violations of democracy in recent years: the Patriot Act, domestic spying, the anti-immigration hysteria, and the curtailment of civil liberties generally.

The challenge, however, is immense. Though the conflict theorists may have the best road forward, the cynics may best express the feeling that we all possess, as Sartre wrote, “in the marrow of our bones.” It is alarmingly evident that democracy is in a crisis, in many ways worse than the one in which Europe faced in Sartre’s time. At any rate it is certain that Europe’s survival through its crisis does not mean that democracy will share the same fate.

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