Democracy in peril

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The world recently commemorated the fall of the Berlin Wall, capstone to a decade of expanding human liberty, and symbolic victory of the democratic west in the Cold War. It is tempting, 20 years later, to consider liberal democracy universal and invulnerable. But as the first decade of the twenty-first century comes to a close, democracy is under threat both abroad and at home.

The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by al Qaeda transformed the nascent George W. Bush presidency into a Wilsonian crusade to spread liberal democracy, what Bush called “not America’s gift to the world,” but “God’s gift to humanity.” The vision of millions of Iraqis holding up purple fingers after the nation’s first free election in 2005 reinforced the belief that democracy might soon transform the Middle East. 

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But as the decade comes to a close, democracy in the Middle East seems a fading dream.  In December Iraq’s government delayed elections until March 2010 amid increasing violence (121 people were killed and over 400 wounded in bombings the day the announcement was made). Iran’s Shiite fundamentalist leadership fraudulently stole an election and ruthlessly repressed the protests that followed.  The United States ends the decade supporting Afghanistan’s corrupt president, Hamid Karzai, who “won” an election with over 1 million counterfeit ballots. And even secular Turkey, the Islamic region’s only democracy, enters 2010 with Islamists in power. 

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Liberty in Latin America is equally under assault. 1990 saw the fall of President Reagan’s antagonists, Nicaragua’s Sandinistas; two decades later, Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega is again running the country.  Meanwhile, Venezuela’s autocrat, Hugo Chavez, finds increasing support across the region – fueled by American petrodollars – in Ecuador, Bolivia, El Salvador, Peru, and even among Mexico’s opposition.

Contrary to original western hopes, China’s economic expansion has been accompanied by unremitting political repression (on Christmas Eve a leading dissident was sentenced to 11 years in prison). And a November 2009 study even found declining support for democracy in Eastern Europe.

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Two decades after the Berlin Wall fell, democracy abroad is flagging. But what should worry Americans most is the threat liberal democracy faces at home.

The 21st century finds faith in America’s democratic institutions at an all-time low.  Gallup reported in 2008 that confidence in Congress was the “lowest ever for any U.S. institution,” just 12 percent. The widespread belief that the country’s democratic institutions are unable to effectively address worsening economic crises in Social Security, Medicare, the national debt, trade imbalances, and Wall Street regulation – and in fact only aggravate those crises – has led for calls to create powerful, new undemocratic institutions.

The health care reform bill passed by the Senate on December 24 calls for the creation of an “Independent Medicare Advisory Board” responsible for making difficult decisions on cost-cutting and “fast-tracking” recommendations to Congress, which would be unable to amend the board’s recommendations.

Congressional inability to address debt and exploding entitlement liabilities has led to similar proposals. Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), chairman of the Senate’s Budget Committee, made his vote for this year’s defense budget contingent upon creation of an independent “fiscal reform commission” which will theoretically be given power to craft legislation, set limits on government spending, and even change the tax code (again presented to Congress and not subject to amendment). Even the conservative Heritage Foundation agrees that since the country’s democratic institutions are incapable of confronting long-term crises, the time has come to create undemocratic ones that will.

All this as the nation’s most powerful undemocratic and unaccountable institution – the Federal Reserve – spent or committed trillions of dollars during the recent financial crisis without any approval by Congress, the President or even the courts.

Critics are right to find fault with the nation’s democratic institutions. But the solution should not be to turn away from liberal democracy; instead, we need to make them more democratic. America’s democratic institutions are increasingly dominated by special interests and entrenched incumbents – the real source of dysfunction in Washington. And they’ve worked to protect their power as fervently as Chavez in Venezuela or Karzai in Afghanistan – with similar results.

Surrendering authority to powerful new undemocratic institutions is a threat to our liberty, at worst, and at best simply masks America’s true deficit – a deficit of democracy. Only by embracing liberty and democracy at home, where it all began over two centuries ago, can we hope to see it expand abroad in the decade to come.

Jim Burkee is an associate professor of history at Concordia University Wisconsin and a former Republican candidate for Congress.

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