Over the past 20 years, I’ve spent a lot of time in countries that are not democracies but would like to be. In Central Europe and the former Soviet Union, and more recently in North Africa, I’ve met many, many people who are trying to figure out how to translate that elusive concept “the will of the people” into the practical matters of government: taxation, public spending, defense, law and order, garbage collection. Over and over again, I’ve watched them construct institutions designed to translate the mystical into the practical: parliaments, presidencies, court systems. Sooner or later, they all learn that the act of voting is a necessary but insufficient component of democracy. Without legitimate representative and executive institutions — bodies that can translate the will of the people into concrete policies — democracy always fails.
From my perch overseas, I’ve also been watching the run-up to the government shutdown in Washington. At times, I have tried to explain it to bemused foreigners. Many of them think, mistakenly, that Americans are having an argument about the budget or the deficit. I have to put them straight: This is an attempt by one part of the U.S. political system to use the budgetary process to stop the implementation of a single law, the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”). If my interlocutors come from democratic countries, they then look puzzled.
If they read the commentary pouring out of Washington, they are even more confused, as am I. What surprises — and shocks — me is how many people who have written, blogged or self-righteously tweeted about the results of various polls on these events, as if they matter. Do 47 percent of Americans oppose Obamacare? Do 73.7 percent oppose Obamacare? Do 97 percent of Republicans hate Obamacare even more than they hate death and taxes? Who cares? In a functioning democracy, it doesn’t matter what the majority happens to think at any given moment. What matters is what the legitimate, representative, legal institutions have already decided.
I am not an expert on the economics of health care, so I don’t know whether the Affordable Care Act is ultimately going to be good or bad for the United States. I am very glad that it will help poor, uninsured Americans get access to doctors, hospitals and medicine. I’m worried that it may be too expensive and will further extend U.S. indebtedness.
But I also recognize that, at this point, what I think doesn’t matter. The Affordable Care Act passed both houses of Congress and was signed into law by the president. It was confirmed by the Supreme Court. The president who sponsored the health-care reform was then sent back to the White House after an election during which that reform was a major topic of debate.
Obamacare is the law, as confirmed by the executive, legislative and judicial branches of our political system. A portion of one of those branches is not now legally or morally empowered to change that law by holding other parts of the government hostage, no matter how strongly its members or their constituents feel. So how is it possible that so many Americans, including some who have been elected to Congress, no longer understand this principle, which is fundamental to our political system and vital to the functioning of democracies? I repeat: Democracy is not designed to reflect majority opinion. It is designed to filter majority opinion through legitimate institutions and to translate it, through agreed procedures, into policy.
Plenty of people outside the United States understand how strange this debate has become. A couple of days ago, an American Egyptian (@salamamoussa) tweeted that it was “Impressive how everyone in #US follows the law even in the face of extreme political vandalism by an irrational fringe. #Egypt.” I think he meant this comment ironically, but actually, he was right. In many parts of the world — Egypt, for example — members of the “irrational fringe” who tried to subvert the political system by overturning a law already confirmed by three branches of government would be called “insurgents” or “coup plotters,” and their behavior would lead to arrest, prison or worse.
But because Americans, even irrational Americans, no longer use violence to achieve their goals, and because this process is still — just barely — taking place within the boundaries of those institutions and because the protagonists still observe the language — if not always the spirit — of the law, the result is peaceful. That is indeed impressive. But it is a narrow achievement.
Americans are paying a high price for this week’s events. The cost of shutting down the federal government, for a few days or even a few weeks, pales in comparison to the damage done to the credibility of the United States abroad — and the credibility of democracy itself.