In the 1990s, several important books sought to explain, as Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. succinctly put it, "why Americans hate politics." Dionne's answer was that American democracy was "decaying" because liberals and conservatives had ineffective governing philosophies. In The System: The American Way of Politics at the Breaking Point , Haynes Johnson and David S. Broder described how "private interest" trumped "the public interest" in dooming President Clinton's health care reform. And journalist James Fallows found that a media elite attached to profits and entertaining "distort[s] the processes by which we . . . resolve our public problems."
Now come four new books, published to coincide with this fall's congressional elections, that suggest a sense -- at least among Democrats and liberals -- that the crisis of democracy has worsened. Indeed, in Does American Democracy Still Work? (Yale Univ., $22), political scientist Alan Wolfe faults the emergence of "a new politics of democracy" in which "moral and religious issues" have replaced economic ones and conservatives have used populist appeals and "traditional morality" to win power. Though he hails "democracy's expansion" during the 20th century, he argues that democracy's "actual operations" have eroded in recent years. Citing a "sickness" in the "body politic," he asserts that the right's political rhetoric and single-minded focus on cultural issues have led to "polarization, deadlock, vituperation, and extremism." Demagoguery is only part of the problem. Uninformed voters shirk their duties and rarely hold incumbents accountable, Wolfe says. Political parties and interest groups have become overtly ideological and partisan while the media, the courts and other nominally disinterested institutions are so politicized that they no longer arbitrate among factions in a fair-minded manner.
Wolfe's thesis that our civic life has been degraded by cultural warriors armed with populist bazookas is provocative and fresh. By weaving together the findings of political scientists with journalistic observations about the Iraq War and other developments, he shows that the franchise is not the only gauge of democracy's performance and captures the ways in which conservative Republicans have fostered an opaque, unjust, unrepresentative political system in recent years. He hyperbolically depicts ordinary people as lazy, naive voters and conservative ideas as the "politics of fantasy" seeking to "return . . . to the nineteenth century." In the end, Wolfe's argument that a toxic brew of right-wing populism and moralistic politics has riven the nation and made it more difficult for American leaders to address public problems is convincing.
When Is Wrongdoing the Public's Business?
President Clinton's former White House special counsel, Lanny Davis, is also concerned about the condition of American democracy -- but for a different reason. In Scandal: How "Gotcha" Politics Is Destroying America (Palgrave, $24.95), Davis bemoans the rise of a scandal culture and hopes that a "grand coalition government" will assume power soon, put an end to mudslinging and address people's problems. Founding Fathers Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson were faced with their own sex scandals, Davis acknowledges. In recent times, however, scandals have acquired "far greater destructive power" as politicians came to view their opponents as "traitors to American values [who] needed to be destroyed" and as the post-Watergate media became obsessed with political investigations. Meanwhile, independent counsels wasted time and taxpayers' money on investigations of allegations that rarely resulted in criminal charges. Finally, the wheels came off a long-standing "gentlemen's agreement" that had kept politicians' sex lives out of the headlines.
Davis ably recounts egregious abuses of prosecutorial power from the 1970s, '80s and '90s. He reminds us, for example, of scandals involving President Jimmy Carter's budget director Bert Lance and chief of staff Hamilton Jordan. Revisiting the investigation of Reagan attorney general Ed Meese concerning bank loans and the sale of his San Diego home, Davis finds a destructive pattern. "Various unsubstantiated allegations surfaced" about Meese's conduct, media leaks followed, and a "media firestorm" developed. The independent counsels ultimately refused to file charges against Meese. But his reputation, as happened in other prosecutors' probes, was battered. It was a case study in overreaching.
Davis links voter fatigue and cynicism to this scandal culture, though he never defines what constitutes official corruption, refusing to draw clear lines that differentiate real crimes from private behavior. He also gives cursory treatment to the Valerie Plame leaks scandal and does not explicitly state how and when investigations should be launched.
Veteran political reporters James Moore and Wayne Slater are the co-authors of the bestselling Bush's Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential . Now they have published a sequel, The Architect: Karl Rove and the Master Plan for Absolute Power (Crown, $25.95), which claims that Rove's "grand vision, complex strategies, and knockdown tactics exceed everything dreamed up by other consultants." Rove, they argue, "has had a transforming effect on how democracy functions." His win-at-all-costs goal of establishing a conservative Republican coalition for decades to come leaves no room for a concern for the public good. Painting a picture of a Machiavellian hit man on steroids, Moore and Slater show Rove manipulating Christian conservative voters, working with surrogates to slander former Texas governor Ann Richards as a lesbian and Sen. John McCain as a "biracial adulterer," and weakening labor unions and trial lawyers.
Their underlying points about Rove may be sound, but Moore and Slater's argument is marred by its conspiratorial overtones. They describe some Bush aides as "Israel-firsters" who join Rove in promoting Israeli interests to win support from U.S. Jews. They intimate that "one of history's greatest crimes" -- forged Niger documents showcasing Saddam Hussein's nonexistent nuclear arms capabilities -- was orchestrated by a neoconservative cabal aligned with Rove. Loosely sourced allegations tarnish the book, too. It's hard to know how much credence to give to the authors' suggestion that at least a few conservative activists and senior Republican officials and one family member of a top official (no, it's not Mary Cheney) are gay. These allegations are based partly on interviews with bloggers who want to expose Republicans as hypocrites for using gay marriage as a wedge issue. They should be taken with caution.
The Party that Proposes Disposes
In The Courage of Our Convictions: A Manifesto for Democrats (Times, $22), former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart argues that democracy has suffered because Democrats have invested too much in attacking Republicans and not enough in explaining their own convictions. Democrats, Hart avers, have a responsibility "not simply to oppose but to propose. "
Political tracts nowadays are often filled with vapid slogans and ideological zeal, but Hart's well-written, nervy polemic largely avoids those mistakes. Hart trumpets four historic principles that should guide Democrats: Franklin Roosevelt's vision for a community of economic justice, Harry Truman's international alliances in the early Cold War, John Kennedy's call for public service and Lyndon Johnson's commitment to racial equality. Hart believes that Democrats need to establish partnerships abroad that can help the United States fight terrorists, rebuild failed states, address the causes of global warming and reduce America's dependence on foreign oil. He characterizes the 2003 Iraq invasion as a neo-imperialist venture with devastating long-term consequences. Chastising Democrats who refuse to admit that their pro-war votes were mistakes, he also urges Democrats to stand on principle and fight against poverty at home, provide health care to children, issue Kennedyesque calls for national service and defend government as a positive force.
Hart's proposals aren't altogether groundbreaking, of course. And his criticisms are often vague; he attacks Democrats without always identifying which leaders at which moments have sacrificed their beliefs on the altar of expediency. Yet, by urging Democrats to engage in debates over national security, identify the party's principles and adopt a clear-eyed philosophy so voters will know where the party stands, Hart makes a constructive contribution to the debate over the party's direction.
Moreover, as Democrats struggle to find their voice, Hart's book suggests a larger enterprise at work: The liberal and Democratic authors of these books fret that the post-9/11 Democratic Party does not wield enough power and that the conservative ascendancy has endangered nothing so much as democracy itself. ·
Matthew Dallek is the author of "The Right Moment: Ronald Reagan's First Victory and the Decisive Turning Point in American Politics."