E. J. Dionne has a piece in Commonweal about the decline of democracy in America and Europe. Hard-data seekers will be frustrated, because quantifying this decline is not possible. Historical development, like human nature itself, defies final summation in mathematical equations.
The afterglow of the dissolution of the Soviet Union is still with us. Despite our anxieties about militant Islam; despite our less than triumphant wars in Central Asia and the Middle East; despite the unraveling of domestic civility and the worst economic crisis in nearly a century– despite all this, we like to think that American democracy is the culminating apex of historical development. We won the Cold War; that victory proved the superiority of American democracy over any autocratic or totalitarian system.
Let’s say that’s true. Let’s say that the fall of the Berlin Wall was the sign that democracy won. The mistake is to believe that democracy won forever: that history had come to an end, and that all the world– if it were progressing to enlightened ends– would inevitably become like us.
The merits and shortcomings of democracy aside, what such triumphalism lacks is historical imagination. Historical imagination involves two activities of the mind: first, it considers centuries– rather than today’s hours and minutes, or the next election cycle– as the pertinent measure of time; second, it consciously resists projecting this era’s dominant worldview onto the past, or into the future. Not unlike the religious imagination, historical imagination both recalls us to the truth that our life is but a breath, and checks our natural inclination to believe that the sun revolves around us.
With historical imagination, it’s not hard to foresee a time when American democracy is not triumphant; to conceive of a day when another way will work better to meet the challenges of that particular day. Things change. They just do.
We can prepare for inevitable change– the inevitable, unavoidable change that comes at many times in a human life, and throughout human history. How we can prepare for the changes that will come, is for next time.
An excerpt from Dionne, and the link, follow:
We know American politics are dysfunctional. But after a week of scandal obsession during which the nation’s capital and the media virtually ignored the problems most voters care about — jobs, incomes, growth, opportunity, education — it’s worth asking if there is something especially flawed about our democracy….
Citizen dissatisfaction is hardly surprising in the wake of a deeply damaging economic downturn. That doesn’t make the challenge any less daunting. We should consider whether democracy itself is in danger of being discredited. Politicians might usefully disentangle themselves from their day-to-day power struggles long enough to take seriously their responsibility to a noble idea and the systems that undergird it.
Earlier this month, the Transatlantic Academy, a global partnership of think tanks led by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, issued “The Democratic Disconnect,” a sober report by a group of distinguished academics.
“Democracy is in trouble,” the report begins. “The collective engagement of a concerned citizenry for the public good — the bedrock of a healthy democracy — is eroding. Democratic governments often seem crippled in their capacity to deliver what their people want and need….”