By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, March 31, 2010; A17
I don't mean to sound nostalgic for the Cold War, but we've got to stop conducting ourselves as if nobody is looking.
The Senate has shriveled into a body that routinely thwarts majority rule. The Supreme Court has ruled that big money can dominate our elections as never before. Do we think that no one outside our borders has noticed? Do Senate Republicans realize that we now have a rival superpower, China, that mocks the inability of our democracy to create the jobs that would restore our economy, which they adduce as evidence of the superiority of authoritarianism? Do Supreme Court conservatives realize that China disparages our elections as controlled by big money?
In short, don't conservatives realize that China is making hay in the developing world through a combination of throwing its wealth around and arguing that American democracy is little more than a veneer for plutocracy?
As The Post's Andrew Higgins reported on Monday, a bizarre gathering of theocratic Indonesian Islamists and secular Indonesian nationalists came together in Jakarta last week to hail China and condemn the United States. China may seem an unlikely object of affection for Islamists, well, anywhere. But U.S.-backed neoliberal economics devastated the Indonesian economy in the '90s and the American economy today. To many Indonesians, China's stunning economic successes argue for its own brand of authoritarian mercantilism.
The Cold War at least compelled us to pay attention to the things our adversaries said about us. Contesting the Soviets for the allegiance of postwar Europe and the newly post-colonial nations of Africa and Asia involved more than economic aid, intelligence operations and military might. It also required us to live up to our ideals, to be that "city on a hill" that Ronald Reagan frequently evoked.
Enactment of the civil rights legislation of the '60s (which, ironically, Reagan opposed) immeasurably bolstered our claim that in the United States all men were created equal. Our assertion that the United States was a land of mass prosperity was surely strengthened by the three-decade boom that followed World War II, during which vastly more Americans went to and graduated from college than ever before, and median household incomes increased at the same rate as productivity. At the height of the Cold War, the whole world was watching us, and we rose to the occasion by expanding equality and prosperity.
The achievements of the postwar era were driven by domestic pressures, of course: the demands of African Americans for equality, the high rate of unionization, the ascendance of manufacturing over banking. But our foreign policy operatives took care to market our achievements and our culture -- the American model -- to a model-shopping world.
With the collapse of Soviet communism, the idea that we were in some kind of systemic competition with another nation or system died for lack of a competitor. Radical Islam may pose the threat of terrorism, but it's hardly a rival for the world's allegiance. And in the halcyon days of the 1990s, China's mix of authoritarian communism and boomtown capitalism clearly struck America's business and political elites more as an investment opportunity than a systemic challenge -- an asinine misjudgment of globally historic dimensions.
But that was then. Today, China has emerged as a global economic powerhouse and political competitor. Unlike the Soviet Union, it does not seek to remake the world in its image, but neither is it a friend of democracy. Its booming economy -- in contrast to those of the wheezing West -- may be viewed as validating state industrial policy, which can help build national prosperity, but China also sees it as an endorsement of authoritarian efficiency. Increasingly, the Chinese are leveling the kinds of attacks the Soviets used to make against the imperfections of our democracy. Li Pen, a leading figure in China's National People's Congress, was quoted in China Daily, an official newspaper, this month on the shortcomings of our political system. "Western-style elections," he said, "are a game for the rich. They are affected by the resources and funding that a candidate can utilize. Those who manage to win elections are easily in the shoes of their parties or sponsors."
Like the old Soviet criticisms of Jim Crow, Li's allegations have power because they're considerably -- though not entirely -- true. And many American conservatives behave as though eager to prove them right. The Supreme Court's January decision in Citizens United, allowing corporations to make limitless investments in election campaigns, reads as if crafted to validate Li's point. The Senate's descent into dysfunction, into a body bent on thwarting majority rule, mocks our democratic values for all the world to see.
In our intensifying contest with China, with much of the world still at stake, our first task is to demonstrate that democracy works. When we don't do so -- and John Roberts and Mitch McConnell, I'm talking to you and your fellow conservatives -- China wins.