Monday, October 6, 2008

Demeaning Democracy

Agence Global
by Rami G. Khouri

6 Oct, 2008

BEIRUT -- Watching the US presidential election from the Arab region is a confusing vocation. At one level, American democracy is an impressive, vibrant, often stunning, phenomenon that permits any citizen -- certified idiots and genuine geniuses alike – to seek and assume public office, and control the destiny of society. It produces some of the most monumental errors and costly adventures in world history, in the military and economic fields, but it also contains the mechanisms for its own self-correction, reconfiguration, improvement and re-birth -- as we witness these days in the economic arena.

At another level, America also provides a powerful argument against a totally open, unregulated democratic system, because it allows the volatile and sometimes infantile emotional psyche of a bare majority of citizens to determine the exercise of immense power.

Three specific examples of the exercise of power show how American politicians can have devastating impact all over the world: the economic crisis that has hit the financial and housing sectors most severely, the war in Iraq and its assorted regional consequences, and the wider “global war on terror” that the United States launched and has led since 2001. All three reflect decisions made by democratically elected leaders in both the White House and the legislature. In their own ways, all three have made the world a more dangerous and fragile place, adding American incompetence and criminality to the destructive work of those many thugs, thieves and killers who already haunt much of the rest of the world.

The consequences and full costs of the three policies of Iraq, the global war on terror and economic mismanagement are still unfolding. While historians will long argue the rights and wrongs of these policies, the world’s current verdict seems widely critical. The fascinating element for me is not if a specific policy is judged to be good or bad; it is that reckless and destructive decisions have been repeatedly made by the most open and vibrant democracy in the world.

At the same time, American leaders continue to preach to the rest of us that democracy and freedom are our best hope for a better future. I agree in principle. In practice though, watching American democracy at work dampens many people’s enthusiasm for that particular model. Rather, we need to temper the extravagant excesses of democratic systems that are so vulnerable to manipulation by special interests and lobbies, or that pander to mass hysteria.

Watching the current American presidential contest brings these issues to the fore once again, especially on the Republican side. The Democrats have selected a pair of candidates who pretty faithfully perpetuate that party’s traditions, with the added fact of an African-American candidate with a Muslim father. The Republican ticket of McCain and Palin, on the other hand, is a much stranger beast, especially in the vice presidential slot.

The fact that someone like Governor Sarah Palin, who lacks any national or international experience -- perhaps even basic knowledge -- can be a potential vice president is a sign of American democracy at its worst. In one swift, serendipitous moment, she was transformed from a moose hunter in Alaska to a global mullah hunter in a contest and a world about which she knows zilch -- as she reconfirms every time she opens her mouth.

The fact that respected conservative analysts and commentators have already asked for her to be dropped from the ticket is about as damning a verdict as there can be of her qualifications. This is much more problematic, though, for what it tells us about John McCain, and the entire American political system. Clearly, something is wrong with a system that turns democratic electoral contestation into either a fantastic gambling orgy for impulsive and ambitious elderly men, or an exercise in mass psychotherapy for millions in the electorate who seek solace and emotional recovery by embracing the image of the bouncy cheerleader next door, regardless of what this could mean for the United States and the world.

The open and honest American system once again simultaneously shows us its best and worst. There is historic brilliance in designing a checks-and-balance governance system anchored in the consent of the governed, and open to every man and woman who aspires to public service, regardless of color, religion or gender. Alongside this, however, there is also bombastic buffoonery in the manner in which desperados and simpletons occasionally gravitate to control the system by offering the electorate a hybrid candidacy of cheerleading razzle-dazzle with macho emotionalism.

For now, the signals from this campaign and from the past seven years are frightening. They confirm that America’s political democracy and economic governance systems -- in their current forms -- are less impressive export items than its iPods, computers, popular culture or universities. May the best team win, and in the process not ruin the good name of democracy.

Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.

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