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