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July 4, 2015

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Is democracy in trouble?

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We know American politics are dysfunctional. But it’s worth asking if there is something especially flawed about our democracy.

Our circumstances certainly have their own particular disabilities: a radicalization of conservative politics, over-the-top mistrust of President Barack Obama on the right, high-tech gerrymandering in the House, and a Senate snarled by non-constitutional super-majority requirements.

Still, while it may not be much of a comfort, the democratic distemper is not a peculiarly American phenomenon. Across most of the democratic world, there is an impatience bordering on exhaustion with electoral systems and political classes.

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.

It’s not hard to discover that this conundrum is global and not just our own. “Has democracy had its day?” is the headline on Columbia University historian Mark Mazower’s cover story in the May issue of Prospect, a British magazine. The subhead: “Electoral politics has had a bad decade.”

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. They are neither as responsive nor as accountable as they need to be in an era of hard choices and rising nondemocratic powers. There is widespread concern about apparent declining rates of voter participation and about the alienation or disaffection of citizens from the political process.”

In Europe, the authors noted, “there is fear that the distance between ordinary citizens and the politicians and bureaucrats in Brussels compromises democratic legitimacy.” In the United States, “lamentations about gridlock and polarization are the order of the day.” Even our peaceable neighbor Canada is not immune. “Canadians,” they write, “worry about the tendency of their political system to place largely unaccountable power in the hands of the prime minister.”

The report does include some useful suggestions for reviving the democratic spirit and improving democratic practice. But it is not alarmist to be uneasy about democracy’s prospects. Ernst Hillebrand, the head of international policy analysis for the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, the German Social Democratic Party’s think tank, describes a chilling finding in a 2009 survey by the German polling firm Forsa: “that 0 percent — yes, zero percent — of workers in Germany believe they can have a significant impact on how policy in Germany is shaped via the ballot box.”

And bear in mind that a poll released last week by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that Germans are far more satisfied with their country’s situation than are their European neighbors.

In a conversation last week during a visit to Washington, Hillebrand pointed to two streams of discontent the world’s democracies face. One is material. The other might be called spiritual.

On the one side, large numbers of lower-middle-class and working-class voters have seen their economic standing deteriorate over two or three decades. There has been a substantial transfer of wealth and income from labor — which is how most people pay their way — to capital. Productivity gains no longer lead to wage gains. This builds justified frustration.

At the same time, he says, many citizens, especially the young, have enhanced expectations for “participation, self-realization and control over their lives.” They do not see current electoral arrangements in the democracies giving them much chance to achieve any of these goals.

Since World War II, bouts of economic growth have allowed the democracies to buy their way out of trouble. One can hope this will happen again — and soon. In the meantime, politicians might contemplate their obligations to stewardship of the democratic ideal. They could begin by pondering what an unemployed 28-year-old makes of a ruling elite that expends so much energy feuding over how bureaucrats rewrote a set of talking points.

E.J. Dionne is a columnist for the Washington Post.

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  1. Thomas Jefferson, the third U.S. President said: "When governments fear the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny." Just as true now as when he said it.

    Carmine D

  2. I recognize no democracy. I recognize no opposition Party. I recognize two political Partys, often funded by even the same significant campaign funders, engaging in recurring chess games in order to determine what the public will stand for without incurring significant citizen backlash. Our nation today appears to be textbook example of bad government and conflict of interest!

  3. Nevada local government's Economic Development schemes deliver more government welfare workers while limiting what you can do on your own property without special permissions requiring more fees and oversight.

    Both Democrat's and Republican's are racing into Economic Development while erasing American's/Nevadan's due process and property rights.

    Tonopah BLM was found guilty(Hage Case)in a Reno court of being a "CRIMINAL ENTERPRIZE"...the same folks at the center of Economic Development in Central Nevada. People don't realize that we are being rushed into a fascist socialist state while the upper levels of government make gobs of money on insider deals while strangling the middle class with more fees and property taxes.

  4. Dionne has nothing to offer but mindless class warfare and far left drivel. If he were any farther left he'd be off the map.

    I'm not always as objective as I should be but this guy can't spell the word let alone contemplate its employment in his agenda.

  5. In census of Germany in 1938 tallied the major religious affiliations as 40% Catholic, 55% Protestant. How is it then, that a country which is 95% Christian can live with an ignore the holocaust going on inside?

    Adolf Hitler rose to power in a democracy of very intelligent people but neither religious principals or education was able to maintain the German democracy.

    Fascism is the combination of industry and Government working together for self serving power. That military-Industrial complex put people to work as directed by the Nazi Government in anticipation of war.

    Nazi Germany began invading it's European neighbors without justification and the people were proud for removing those deviant leaders. This behavior is identical to the Iraq war which had no justification and continues to make so many people patriotic and removed a tyrant.

    In Benghazi, 4 people died because the CIA and military intelligence units failed. In Iraq, 4600 American soldiers died for no reason but it is forgotten.

    Instead, the Republican Oversight Committee ignores Iraq with it's 4600 dead, 46,000 maimed and wounded and decides to go after Hillary Clinton instead.

    This Country is in very serious trouble, particularly when Congressmen with self-proclaimed deeply religious values vote to withold medical air from children and the less fortunate in favor of building up larger armies.

  6. Congressmen with deeply religious values vote to withhold affordable medical care and medical aide to children and the disadvantaged while knowing that their actions are compatible with their religious beliefs.

    They also vote to approve the sales of guns to anonymous buyers without background checks who could easily be thieves, thugs, murderers and the criminally insane.

    In a speech given in Munich Germany on April 12, 1922 (among others), Hitler avows his devotion to his religion of Christ. Never be fooled by religious principals as they have been used by monsters.