Friday, April 19, 2013

Maybe we need less democracy

When was the last time you voted? How did you decide who and what to vote for? Do you think you were more or less informed than the average voter? How do you become "informed?" Should voting be manditory or should there be some sort of test or qualification? Do you think your vote even makes a difference?

We Americans take a great deal of pride in our form of government, many of us going so far as to proclaim it the best there is. That doesn't mean we don't complain about our leaders and the mess they've made of things. But as we look at our current problems and see nascent democracies around the world struggle and frequently fail, are we too proud to consider ways to improve? Even if it means adopting some ideas from other nations? Nations such as China?

In Intelligent Governance for the 21st Century: A Middle Way between West and East by Nicolas Berggruen and Nathan Gardels, the authors point out that the American Founding Fathers were adamant in their displeasure with Democracy, equating it with mob rule. And yet we've become more democratic and less of a Republic in the subsequent 200 years (especially in places like California, which is part of the reason we have such a big state budget problem). Whereas earlier Americans didn't vote for the President or the Senate, now we have a say in choosing those leaders even if our vote is watered down by millions of others – and that's just the ones who actually vote! Most feel disenfranchised and don't believe their vote makes a difference. And just how informed are those who are voting? Are they knowledgeable about the issues and candidates, or are they just voting for the most charismatic candidate or basing their decision on personal reasons (like race or party) or are they simply swayed by multi-million dollar advertising campaigns and catchy slogans?

But it's not just the voters who don’t understand the issues; we frequently elect leaders who are have little experience in government. The authors also point out the undue influence of special interests in politics such as unions, corporations, industries, or even just influential minority groups. We fool ourselves by thinking our voice matters when it’s actually those special interests who are funding the expensive campaigns that have become absolutely necessary today and have the ears of our leaders. As a result they say, we’ve become a “consumer democracy” and we end up with decisions being made with short-term results in mind instead of looking to the future and addressing the most important issues (like infrastructure, education, energy, environment, etc.) that would allow us to retain the place of influence in the world that we are rapidly losing.

China is discussed in the book but not as much as I had anticipated. The authors are careful to make a distinction between Communist China (which they basically say was a failure) and Confucian China (of which even most of the shorter dynasties lasted longer than our nation has so far). Confucian ideals promote a leadership class based on merit, where leaders must prove themselves at lower levels before they can move up to more responsibility – an idea which I initially balked at, but have since warmed to in some ways. They don't ignore the current challenges in China's government – corruption, repression, lack of human rights, lax environmental standards, etc. – but the focus is mostly on improving Western governments. They also suggest the power of special interests could be curbed if we utilized more committees of "experts" in making policy recommendations. Globalization and the social media revolution are also discussed extensively as a huge challenge faced by both Eastern and Western governments.

I expected to find much to criticize in this book, but instead found it a well-thought out and rational examination of the problems in America right now. In addition to the specific recommendations for the United States, they also discuss ways California, the G-20 group of nations, and the European Union could be improved. I don't necessarily agree with all their proposals (and many will be a very tough-sell) and the direction toward global government they seem to advocate, but I think there are many ideas here that would make a positive difference. I also wish they had explained more thoroughly what they meant by “consumer democracy” – I think I understood but would have liked a plainer explanation. Nonetheless, this is an excellent and relatively short book that deserves careful consideration by ALL those concerned with the direction we are going.  (I received this book from Amazon Vine.)

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