Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Perils of Democracy

When I watch the Obama Administration forming its policy on Afghanistan, I'm reminded of the Bush Administration (and, well, every administration I've seen in my lifetime) - Push back the date for decisions that may cause blowback such that any negative consequence, that is anything that might hurt the incumbent President in the polls, occurs after reelection (or after his successor takes office).

I suspect that Obama will order an approach that he believes will improve the situation in Afghanistan, but with the idea of wrapping up major military operations by mid-2011. At that time he can begin withdrawing troops without fear of a Najibullah-type collapse of the Karzai government before the election. His Republican opponent will have to decide if he wants to run on a platform of re-escalating and perpetuating the war, or effectively endorsing Obama's policies - and I suspect that in a national election there's a lot more danger to a politician who does the former.

This is hardly unique to the U.S. - there are issues around the globe that could be resolved if elected leaders spent less time worrying about getting reelected and more time worrying about what's truly in the best interest of their country and countrymen. And no, I'm not calling for the abolition of democracy - a cure far worse than the disease. And I would probably be arguing against human nature if I were to ask politicians to treat the public as if it has the knowledge, respect and maturity to accept that it can take years to see the benefits of good policy choices, and that a significant short-term price tag (figurative or literal) can be a small price to pay for those benefits.

Alas, I'm dreaming of a world without lobbyists, and in which people would treat the notion of "Sarah Palin, 2012" as a joke, and where it would be laughable to conceive of people like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck as thought or opinion leaders. I don't mean to single out the political right, but it's difficult to think of a current "thought leader" or "political leader" on the left who offers so little substance yet is taken seriously by the media and the majority of the members of a major political party. People are people, and history tells us that the political left is far from immune from the dubious charms of similar "leaders".

In the Washington Post's tepid "America's Next Great Pundit" contest, a Nobel Prize winning scientist asked why our nation doesn't make an effort to separate science from partisanship, recreating the Office of Technology Assessment to try to "help Congress arrive at a common starting point for complicated legislation". Why not? Because the facts, or scientific consensus, frequently aren't politically convenient. Consider, for example, the British Government's decision to appoint a genuine scientist to advise it on drug issues, only to be embarrassed when he pointed out that much of the hysteria surrounding ecstasy and marijuana were exactly that. So he was fired.

Armed conflicts pose a similar problem, with proponents of war eagerly declaring any action with which they disagree to be a sign of weakness, empowering the enemy. We of course see that in pretty much every pro-war analysis of the War in Afghanistan. And, as Roger Cohen's column on Israel-Palestine implies, it's an argument that can lead to self-destructive behaviors that drag out a problem to the point that the best and easiest solutions may no longer be viable. When things are going well, the politicians respond to the popular sentiment that "Things are going well so why do we need to make any sacrifice," and when things aren't going well they respond to the sentiment, "Why do they deserve anything?" And the problem drags on for years, decades, potentially even for centuries.

As the experience of Britain in the Republic of Ireland indicates, the form of government can change dramatically without any significant impact on how the government responds to a serious issue, problem or conflict. Perhaps it's true that we get the government that we deserve - small-minded, foolish, vengeful, irrational, selfish, short-sighted... just like all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time.


  1. What's scary about the Republican Party right now isn't so much that there are people like Limbaugh and Palin, but that people who are supposedly serious politicians, should be the first to point out that, as emperors, Palin and Limbaugh have no clothes, are instead scrambling to get on their bandwagon. Giuliani complaining that criminals are put on trial... no, I can't do it as well... take it from the Daily Show.

    And how scary is it that political comedy is often more thoughtful and insightful than what comes out of the "professional" media?

  2. Sure, Geraldo Rivera as the voice of reason is scary, but on this issue he's joined by Grover Norquist. The planets are aligned in a very strange manner.