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Why are we defining democracy down?

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In 1993, Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote a brilliant essay in the American Scholar in which he argued that America was “defining deviancy down” — that is, lowering standards as to what comprised normal (as opposed to aberrant) behavior in ways that skewed society’s proper judgments. His addictive phrase spawned a cottage industry thereafter of things the country has been “defining down.” But I’d wager that if Moynihan were here today he’d agree that the way we’re defining democracy itself down is among the most depressing collapses we face.

Why this whine? Look around. Our leaders now act as if the highest achievement we can expect from self-government is to avert calamity. Once upon a time Americans could come together through government and create universal public education, build interstate highways, bring security to old age through Social Security and Medicare, and nurture the most dynamic economy on Earth.

In our spare time government even corralled the best minds in the public and private sectors to put a man on the moon.

Today, by contrast, our leaders pop the champagne corks when they avoid a government shutdown. One day soon, if the president’s little Thursday pow-wow at the White House has its intended effect, we’ll be treated to a news conference at which our leaders congratulate themselves for raising the debt limit, thus avoiding what would have been an entirely self-inflicted economic catastrophe.

When relief masquerades as accomplishment, you know we’ve defined democracy down.

As DPM wrote nearly two decades ago, “we have been re-defining deviancy so as to exempt much conduct previously stigmatized, and also quietly raising the ‘normal’ level in categories where behavior is now abnormal by any earlier standard.”

If that doesn’t capture Republican behavior on the debt limit, I don’t know what does. To vote to add more than $5 trillion to the debt in the next decade (via Paul Ryan’s budget) and then hold the global economy hostage by refusing to raise the debt limit would have once been seen as beyond the pale. Today such recklessness and hypocrisy is apparently a permissible negotiating strategy.

Yet it’s not just the GOP that’s defined democracy down. President Obama’s entire 2012 message on the economy will come down to the argument, “Hey, it could have been worse.”

Cut to the inevitable parody ad. “Yes, unemployment is awful, wages are flat, and growth is in a ditch — but thanks to me, we sidestepped a Depression. I’m Barack Obama and I approved this message.”

It’s a sad mark of the times to have to point this out, but “averting calamity” doesn’t suffice as governing strategy. It’s not what more effective public sectors in places such as Singapore or Finland, or even China, are doing.

Which raises the question: Why have we defined democracy down? Why the shrunken sense of collective possibilities?

To be sure, Obama has at times aimed higher — health care being the prime example. But the difficulty that effort faced (and still faces), despite being built around GOP reform ideas that should have had bipartisan appeal, suggests how deep our democratic ailment is, how far we are from using politics to solve major problems.

There are myriad causes. For me the story starts with America’s loss of unrivaled economic supremacy, and the strains the middle class faces as nations such as India and China rise. This leaves Americans frustrated and angry with politicians of all stripes who seem powerless to protect them from the storm.

Pair this anxiety with political institutions that simply aren’t fit for the 21st century and you have a recipe for the stasis and jockeying we see. Obama had it right in the last campaign: The smallness of our politics doesn’t match the size of our challenges. But as president, he hasn’t been able to alter this dynamic.

Maybe no one operating in our two-party system can — the interest-group and ideological barnacles are just too thick.

Why do we have a nominating process that leaves moderates such as Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman pandering to a few hundred thousand conservative voters in idiosyncratic states? How can that make sense in the Internet age?

How can we expect to make progress when two years of every four are consumed by presidential campaigns?

How can anyone govern during those two years when a relic like the Senate filibuster guarantees that, even when a majority is elected, it can’t rule?

No wonder averting calamity becomes the modern measure of success.

After the miraculous escape of 338,000 British soldiers from Dunkirk, Winston Churchill famously toasted his countrymen’s courage and ingenuity. Then he pivoted and tempered his relief with a thought that offers an echo for our time.

“Wars are not won by evacuations,” Churchill admonished.

Nations are not renewed by the “accomplishment” of raising the debt ceiling, we should say today.

Churchill got it. Do we?

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