Around the world, people are asking whether democracy is still up to the job.
Doubts are stoked by the Great Recession that slammed prosperous democracies while barely scraping communist China; the crisis of the euro; anxieties about the Arab Spring; and the inability of Japan, Europe and the United States to make tough fiscal choices as their populations age.
I’m as dismayed as the next hand-wringer about partisanship and dithering in the face of mounting but solvable challenges.
But if a modern-day de Tocqueville were to tour the United States, I think he would (after fretting over whether he could recoup his costs via e-books) find many successes. Some of them are responses to problems that democracy itself created; none is a final triumph. But they are accomplishments of democracy that we may not always think of as such.
In no particular order, here are a few:
1. Gay rights. A generation ago, prejudice toward homosexuals, often vile and destructive, was a given. Today it is not accepted. Twenty states plus the District of Columbia recognize same-sex partnerships, including six (and the District) that allow marriage. The U.S. military may no longer discriminate against gays and lesbians; employers still may, but most big companies don’t, and four in five Americans oppose bias in hiring. Prejudice is dying out with the older generation.
2. The Republican primary. Yes, it was horrifying (if entertaining) when one preposterously ill-suited candidate after another rose to the top of the polls. Yet the process — debates, media scrutiny, fundraising, campaigning — winnowed the field. Mitt Romney may or may not be to your liking, but he’s qualified, as have been the major-party nominees in all our recent elections.
3. TARP. Disproving the assumption that Washington can never do hard things, Republicans and Democrats came together responsibly in the fall of 2008 to save the nation’s financial system. Candidate Barack Obama crossed party lines to partner with President George W. Bush, supporting something they knew voters wouldn’t like. Members of Congress took a risk for the national good; just ask former senator Robert Bennett (R-Utah).
4. Immigration. While Congress has missed every chance to pass needed reforms, the country for the most part has adapted admirably to the largest influx of foreigners in a century. The population has gone from 4.7 percent foreign-born in 1970 to 12.9 percent in 2010. This has caused anxiety, discrimination, social problems and some noxious state legislation. But the upheaval has been remarkably peaceful, as we can see in places such as Montgomery and Fairfax counties, with many Americans recognizing the newcomers as an economic and cultural boon. “You hear the intolerant voices sometimes a little bit louder,” says Sharon Bulova, county board chair in Fairfax, “but overall I think we are pretty accepting and pretty welcoming.”
5. Detainees. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the federal government brought shame to the country with torture, unwarranted secrecy and claims to be beyond any judicial accountability. But the check-and-balance democracy swung into action, and the system righted itself. The judiciary imposed limits. Congress woke up. Voters chose a president with very different views — which he in turn moderated, until the country reached a place that, while far from perfect, was acceptable to most Americans and morally defensible.
6. Civil society. This is the term democracy advocates use to describe what really makes self-government work — and what is absent, and so hard to nurture, in countries transitioning from dictatorship. It is the voluntary associations by which citizens organize and express themselves without waiting for orders from above — the Rotary Clubs and Little Leagues, the neighborhood watches and park volunteers. In Fairfax County alone, there are 2,031 community associations, from Accotink Bluff Estates to Yorktowne Square Condominium. It’s no coincidence that, in such places, politicians think it wise to enlist public participation in their decisions. When the Great Recession struck and Fairfax property values plunged, thousands of citizens took part in meetings and small-group sessions the county organized to solicit understanding and input for difficult budget decisions.
This is an idiosyncratic list. I’d love to hear from readers which items you think don’t belong and, even more, what you would add.
The list does not prove that Washington will overcome skewed redistricting, opaque campaign financing, allergy to compromise and other barriers to political progress.
But it’s a reminder of ways in which democracies remain more resilient than dictatorships, better able to adapt and self-correct — still, for all our frustrations, the “worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”