Despite Problems, Democracy Still Lives in the U.S.: An essay by Huck Gutman published in The Statesman, Kolkata (Calcutta) , India

"The Premise That Holds Good" 
January 2, 2001

        As the year 2000 concludes in America, one thing is clear.  Despite the predictions of every political commentator, despite the sociologists and the pollsters and the theorists of culture, American democracy is has more vitality than many have imagined it.
   Well, not the entire democracy.  The sad fact is that only about half of all Americans vote in Presidential elections, and less than thirty-five percent vote in biennial Congressional elections when all of the House of Representatives and a third of the Senate are up for election when only the legislature and not the Presidency itself is at stake.  Clearly, many Americans have lost hope in the democratic process.      
       Worse, these non-voters are disproportionately poor: the higher the income bracket, the more likely people are to go out to vote to protect their interests.  Those who have few interests to protect vote less often. Those who believe themselves to have no interests – the impoverished, those who are consistent victims of racial prejudice, the alienated young – think that since the system doesn’t work for them, why should they bother voting.  Insofar as voting legitimates the system of governance and those who control it, these non-voters have a very cogent point.  But in a democracy government does, finally, what the people tell it to do.  If people do not step up – in public, in the press, in their neighborhoods, and finally at the ballot box – to tell the government what needs to be done and whose interests should be served, then democracy fails.

       How then, given the acute problem of non-voting in the United States, a problem so acute it is not hyperbolic to call it a major crisis, can American democracy be more vital than has been imagined, as was maintained at the outset?  Democracy is failing in American, that much is very clear.  Can it also be healthy at the same time?       

       The answer is yes, democracy can be in crisis and yet be in good health.  The crisis is real.  But so is the refutation of the argument heard everywhere, that in mass-media, post-modern society people are so manipulated that democratic decision-making is not possible.  This mode of analysis, one of the most powerful tools for understanding modern society, says that we are shaped by the media we encounter, particularly television; that our tastes are shaped by advertisers with their sophisticated techniques (and their money); that modern men and women are not free, but are dominated by their socialized desires and their herd mentality.  I argue as much myself, at times.

       What a surprise, then to look closely at what has actually happened in America in the past two years.  Twice, every expectation of the pollsters and analysts,  of the social scientists and the social theorists, went awry.  The American people did not do what was expected of them.  They acted with good sense instead of mass idiocy, and they made up their own minds instead of being swayed by the media.

       The first instance  came as the American nation confronted the affair of Monica Lewinsky.  There was blood-lust in the media: the President had engaged in tawdry and lascivious conduct in the sacred precincts of the White House.  The President had sacrificed national good to personal lust.  The President had lied. Clearly, the analysts al agreed, the narrowly moralistic American people would demand he leave office.
       But in the end it was the Republican hounds who were called off the hunt for the fox; it was the political pundits and not President Clinton who ended up embarrassed.  For what the Lewinsky episode revealed – an episode given such emphasis that it led to impeachment in the Republican-dominated House of Representatives by party-line vote  – was that Americans are not as moralistic as everyone had claimed they were.  Nor had they been stampeded by the media, which provides endless streams of  prurient details on the television screen every day.

       What transpired was that Americans, by a large majority, were able to discriminate between a small lie uttered to protect one’s private life, and a lie which violates public trust and undermines the nation.  Americans were competent to judge Mr. Clinton and find him foolish but not treacherous.  They were able – this in modern society, where celebrity rumour is the order of the day – to distinguish between gossip and politics, between scandal and treason.  The people  decided – not the reporters, not the Congress – that Mr. Clinton had been democratically elected and there was no sufficient reason to undo that democratic decision.

       Likewise, in the past two months every commentator said that the American people have no patience, and they would not be willing to countenance recounts and court challenges in place of a quick decision about who was to be the nation’s next President.  In America the most important of tools, after all, is the television zapper, which allows a bored viewer to change from one channel to another every fifteen seconds.  After twenty seconds Americans grow impatient with lines or delays.  Packages ordered on the telephone must arrive the next day, even if they come from across the country, 5000 kilometers away.  No one could expect the American people to wait for four weeks to find out who won the Presidential election.

       Yet again the people responded with more maturity than was expected or predicted.  If a recount in Florida was necessary, they would wait.  It the issue had to go before the courts, they would understand.  And so, to the amazement of all, Americans waited for the process to be completed.

       Surely the lack of faith in democracy that is revealed by low voter turnout is disappointing and even tragic.  But, at the same time, the willingness of Americans to judge less harshly, and with greater forbearance, than the political analysts and the partisan faithful, says something about the capacity of citizens in a democracy to sit in judgement with good will and sound reasoning.  And just as surely, the patience of an impatient people when their future is being determined says much about a capacity to work things through rather than leap to easy conclusions.

       Sound judgment, restraint, toleration, forbearance:  The people can be depended on.  Democracy is built on that premise, and it is stirring to find that the premise holds, not only in America, but throughout the world.