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Jewish World Review
Jan. 23, 2006
/ 23 Teves, 5766
Messy but not broken
It is not a pretty season in our politics. Both our major parties seem to be busy disqualifying themselves. The Republicans are desperately trying to avoid getting caught up in the scandal of the disgraced and disgustingly greedy lobbyist Jack Abramoff (his clients contributed to Democrats as well as Republicans, they are quick to assert). The Democrats are fortifying their reputation of being unwilling to defend their country from its violent enemies by attacking George W. Bush for ordering National Security Agency electronic surveillance of calls from al Qaeda suspects and by filibustering reauthorization of the Patriot Act.
The Republicans having succeeded in delivering on some of Bush's promises (on taxes and education) and having flinched at others (Social Security) are vulnerable to the charge that they have run out of ideas. The Demo-crats, split on the war on terrorism between the Liebermanites who want to win and the Murthians who want to quit, are vulnerable to the charge that, since Bill Clinton decamped to Chappaqua, they have no ideas at all.
Is our republican democracy, then, entirely squalid? Not really, or not so it should bother us, says Judge Richard Posner of the Seventh Circuit, the most prolific federal judge, who seems to write almost as many books as he does judicial opinions. In his 2005 book Law, Pragmatism and Democracy, Judge Posner nominates as the Virgil to guide us through our Inferno and Purgatorio the Austrian-born economist Joseph Schumpeter. Schumpeter hardly a sympathetic figure was an elitist who believed the achievements of capitalism were threatened by the greed and ignorance of the masses. But he supported popular electoral democracy a controversial stand in the Mitteleuropa of the 1920s if only to give the masses a sense that they were in control. "Democracy," as Posner describes Schumpeter's view, "is conceived of as a method by which members of a self-interested political elite compete for the votes of a basically ignorant and apathetic, as well as determinedly self-interested, electorate."
Judge Posner revives Schumpeter's theory of politics because he is annoyed that "without it there are no wholehearted academic defenders of the most successful political system since the Roman Empire!" He brings to mind Winston Churchill's quip that democracy is the worst system of government except all the others that have been tried over the years. "American democracy," writes Posner, "enables the adult population, at very little cost in time, money, or distraction from private pursuits commercial or otherwise, to punish at least the flagrant mistakes and misfeasances of officialdom, to assure an orderly succession of at least minimally competent officials, to generate feedback to the officials concerning the consequences of their policies, to prevent officials from (or punish them for) entirely ignoring the interests of the governed, and to prevent serious misalignments between government action and public opinion."
More voters. All of which is a little too astringent to me. I prefer the uplift of Jefferson and Lincoln, the Rooseveltsand Ronald Reagan (who appointed Posner to the bench). I note that voter turnout rose 16 percent from 2000 to 2004 and that Bush's popular vote rose 23 percent: Our polarized politics has increased participation, though not in the way most of the academy and mainstream media would prefer. But Schumpeter's view has something to say for it. The Republicans may be facing lobbying scandals but lobbying is protected by the First Amendment (the Constitution gives us the right to "petition the government for a redress of grievances"), and a government that channels vast sums of money will always be so petitioned. The Democrats may be seriously bifurcated between those who want to see America win and those with what Harvard Prof. Samuel Huntington calls a "transnational" allegiance, but the Democratic Party through its long existence has often been split.
A city on a hill is, after all, a city and cities are messy places. As are suburbs and farmlands. Americans are busy striving and risking their lives and making the world better, as they have been since World War II. There have been few if any pretty seasons in our politics over those years: Go back and try to find them. Yet the result, pace Posner, is better than what Rome achieved. We'll get through this season, too.
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Hard America, Soft America: Competition vs. Coddling and the Battle for the Nation's Future
America is divided into two camps, according to U.S. News and World Reports writer and Fox commentator Michael Barone. No, not Red and Blue, though one suspects Barone may taint the two groups in the hues of the 2000 presidential election. Barone's divided America is one part Hard, one part Soft. Hard America is steeled by the competition and accountability of the free market, while Soft America is the product of public school and government largesse. Inspired by the notion that America produces incompetent 18 year olds and remarkably competent 30 year olds, Barone embarks on a breezy 162-page commentary that will spark mostly huzzahs from the right and jeers from the left. Sales help fund JWR.
JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report. Comment by clicking here.
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