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July 11, 2014 5:55 pm
Anewly assertive tone has entered Barack Obama’s rhetoric since he gave a speech just before the Fourth of July holiday. John Boehner, speaker of the House of Representatives, has threatened to file a lawsuit against the US president for abuses of power. “So sue me,” Mr Obama said. Press reports highlighted his new fighting mood.
That may not have been what he intended. The speech was constructed around several high-flown paragraphs on the concept of “economic patriotism”. Mr Obama is fond of such tropes, which sound to the working-class ear like protectionism but imply no regulation that might startle free-traders. The president clearly hoped to shore up his credentials as one who cares about the median American.
Yet this side of his speech went unmentioned. When he tried to connect with ordinary citizens’ preoccupations, his language was flat. He said Americans should spend more on “the things that help workers get to the job, the things that help families get home to see their loved ones at night”. Even in a speech on infrastructure, this came off as unspecific and distant. He appealed to sports fans, rejoicing that the US soccer team was about to take to the “pitch” – a word Americans know only if they have traded in the City of London. American politicians occasionally drift out of intimacy with their voter base. But how do we explain it when a global symbol of democratic empowerment comes off sounding like Marie Antoinette?
Of the many excellent philosophers of democracy working today, John Dunn of Cambridge university is the one best attuned to its paradoxes. His new book, Breaking Democracy’s Spell, collects four lectures given at Yale. One of them, “Diagnosing Democracy’s Power”, shows how easily democracy can fall wide of its aims, particularly in America. While never undervaluing the people’s right to choose their leaders, Professor Dunn draws a sharp distinction between that and self-government. “No one inspecting the United States today could sanely conclude that it is governed by its people,” he writes – granting at the same time that the people’s right to choose their rulers is not for nothing.
People in the west are not good at distinguishing “a happy accident from a magic formula”. Democracy is not a synonym for good government. For most of history it has been the reverse. Democracy, in Prof Dunn’s view, may be not just indifferent but hostile to law and reason. Forced to choose, most people would probably prefer law over democracy. This view, put forth by Prof Dunn in 2011, has been vindicated in Ukraine. Generally, western observers wanted to see President Viktor Yanukovich ousted because he was corrupt – not left alone on the grounds he was democratically elected. Opposition parties in the west are experimenting with ways to remove unpopular politicians more swiftly. In the US, system, congressional investigations, impeachments and shamings can serve almost as a vote of no-confidence does in UK and European parliaments.
Westerners often fail to distinguish a happy accident from a magic formula
If the relationship between democracy and good government is so tenuous, it is worth knowing where democratic systems acquire their impressive legitimacy. Prof Dunn gives a few answers. There is the power, as in the Arab uprisings of 2011, to throw off a despotic yoke – even if it means putting on another. People also find it impinges less on their self-esteem to go with the democratic flow than to submit to the will of a single fellow mortal.
In Prof Dunn’s view, these reasons had much more appeal back when democracy hitched its colours to “the huge inchoate movement of egalitarian reconstruction”. As socialism has lost its lustre, so has democracy. “What has carried this word so far up the global beach today,” he writes, “is to an overwhelming degree one thing – the role it came to play in explaining America’s politics to itself.” That means that plausible accusations of anti-democratic behaviour, such as those Mr Boehner has levelled at Mr Obama, are hard to brush off. They are fighting words.
And they are inevitable. Democracy is not a synonym for government with a light touch. Any durable democracy requires a margin of safety. Democracies tend to rule with a heavier-handed authority than might seem warranted, if they are not to risk being toppled by predictable swings in opinion. “Indeed,” writes Prof Dunn, “American democracy’s greatest claim to historical distinction, its impressive longevity and spatial amplitude, guarantees that it must have encompassed . . . a huge range of excess authorisation of the outcomes of sovereign choice.”
A theme that runs through Prof Dunn’s provocative book is that democracy summons parochial peoples to a more global consciousness. Not everyone is likely to think that a lucky thing.
The writer is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard
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