Christian Caryl

The Beacon Dims

The United States wants to spread democratic values around the world. It can start by cleaning up its own act at home.

Scott Olson/Getty Images
Scott Olson/Getty Images

The approaching midterm election here in the United States offers fresh occasion for anguish about the fate of American democracy. We have a national vote in this country every two years, and each one offers plenty of opportunities to bemoan the sorry state of the republic.

This time it’s the same, only worse. Once again, substantive policy issues are taking a back seat to partisan rancor and vicious negative ads. Once again, record amounts of cash are being spent to promote candidates whose actual ideological differences are often small. Once again, special interest groups are working hard to make sure that their private concerns will shape public policy. And once again, as usually happens in elections where voters don’t have to worry about choosing a president, turnout will end up well below 50 percent. (The figures are even worse — more like 30 percent — for local elections.)

All these complaints are familiar enough. Yet there’s something about this particular election cycle that feels even grimmer than usual. President Barack Obama’s approval rating is dismal, but it doesn’t look too bad when compared with the figures for Congress, which are now in the single digits. This has a great deal to do with the deepening paralysis of lawmakers, who increasingly seem more intent on partisan point scoring than on getting things done.

And they’re not the only ones. A series of high-profile scandals in varied corners of American public life have soured the mood to a remarkable degree. Of late, notes Peter Baker of the New York Times, public confidence in “virtually every major institution of American life has fallen, including organized religion, the military, the Supreme Court, public schools, newspapers, Congress, television news, the police, the presidency, the medical system, the criminal justice system, and small business.” (The photo above shows protests in St. Louis, Missouri, after the killing of 18-year-old Vonderrit Myers Jr. by an off duty police officer.) It’s an impressive list — though it leaves out the once-hallowed National Football League, which has been shaken by a series of horror stories about the apparent propensity of the players to abuse women and children.

What Americans probably don’t realize, though, is that we aren’t the only ones to feel disillusioned. The rest of the world’s countries tend to pay far more attention to us than we do to them, and they’ve noticed what a mess our society is in. I’m not just talking here about the usual agonizing over American “declinism,” the general perception of diminished U.S. influence around the globe. I have a more specific problem in mind: America’s dwindling attractiveness as a model of democracy.

Larry Diamond, one of America’s leading scholars on global democracy, brought it up in a rousing speech at a recent conference here in Washington. He noted, with admirable frankness, that “we can’t be credible and effective in promoting democracy abroad if we don’t reform and improve its functioning at home.” He used to make this point, he said, as one of his last pieces of advice to Americans who aim to offer assistance to would-be democrats abroad. Now, he said, “it needs to be the first.” He quoted the old Greek proverb: “Physician, heal thyself.”

He’s not the only one. Just about everyone you meet in the “democracy bureaucracy” these days says the same. There’s a general awareness that democracy is experiencing dark times around the world, and that the attraction of Western models is waning (fueled also by Europe’s continuing financial woes and political inertia).

The rise of the post-9/11 security state — including revelations about National Security Agency surveillance at home and abroad — certainly hasn’t helped. Depicting the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan as exercises in democracy promotion has done enormous damage to our credibility as proponents of liberal values. And we can hardly preach the virtues of the open society to others when we’re detaining journalists at our borders based on vague suspicions or including large numbers of our own citizens on terrorism watch lists. (Let’s hope that the end of America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as growing pushback from citizens worried about the erosion of civil rights, will right the balance.)

In any case, it’s clear that American advocates of democracy around the world are right to worry. But talk is cheap. How do we fix things?

First and foremost, Americans need to stop whining and start reforming. Diamond himself offers a number of good places to start in a chapter of his 2008 book The Spirit of Democracy: The Struggle to Build Free Societies Throughout the World. I don’t have the space to do full justice to his proposals, but suffice it to say that he offers a series of concrete recommendations on everything from tackling the legalized corruption at the heart of our political system to reducing partisan polarization and enhancing political participation. The answers include full or partial public financing of campaigns, doing away with gerrymandering, and adoption of instant runoff voting, which allows voters to rank candidates by preference rather than forcing them to vote for only one.

All of this strikes me as eminently reasonable. As Diamond notes, certain countries (and even some American states) have already adopted similar reforms. The remarkable success of some regional politicians — such as California governor Jerry Brown — shows that it’s possible to turn things around where there’s corresponding political will. (Among other things, a shrewdly maneuvering Brown has persuaded Democrats to accept deep spending cuts while convincing Republicans to raise taxes.) Throughout its history America has shown a remarkable talent for reinvention.

But making the system more democratic shouldn’t be seen as an end unto itself. Democracy will only win out if it delivers better results: good schools, sustainable economic growth, more income equality, and efficient and accessible health care. America’s current record on these fronts is spotty — which is why eyes tend to roll in other countries whenever we start to sing the praises of our system.

There’s a big debate about effective governance going on in the world right now (for a good overview, see The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State, by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge). America needs to become a more active participant in that discussion. As Micklethwait and Woodridge note, there are plenty of countries that we, too, can learn from. Singapore (not a democracy) has managed to keep the state small even while transforming its civil servants into some of the best trained in the world. The Nordic countries (thorough-going democracies) have used technology and smart management to boost government efficiency, enabling them to preserve crucial bits of the welfare state while reducing public spending.

Yet there’s no question in my mind that people around the world want more democracy. That’s because most people want freedom, political participation, and control over their own lives. But why they should they choose democracy if the way it’s implemented in their own societies results in rampant social injustice, corruption, diminished prosperity, and a decline in personal security? What they want is democracy that works.

America used to be the world’s best example of that. Now it’s not. Maybe it’s time for us to clean up our act — and not just for own sake. Bring on those midterms.

 Twitter: @ccaryl

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