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Thursday, December 8, 2016

WASHINGTON — We know American politics are dysfunctional. But after a week of scandal obsession during which the nation’s capital and the media virtually ignored the problems most voters care about — jobs, incomes, growth, opportunity, education — it’s worth asking if there is something especially flawed about our democracy.

Our circumstances certainly have their own particular disabilities: a radicalization of conservative politics, over-the-top mistrust of President Obama on the right, high-tech gerrymandering in the House, and a Senate snarled by non-constitutional super-majority requirements.

Still, while it may not be much of a comfort, the democratic distemper is not a peculiarly American phenomenon. Across most of the democratic world, there is an impatience bordering on exhaustion with electoral systems and political classes.

Citizen dissatisfaction is hardly surprising in the wake of a deeply damaging economic downturn. That doesn’t make the challenge any less daunting. We should consider whether democracy itself is in danger of being discredited. Politicians might usefully disentangle themselves from their day-to-day power struggles long enough to take seriously their responsibility to a noble idea and the systems that undergird it.

It’s not hard to discover that this conundrum is global and not just our own. “Has democracy had its day?” is the headline on Columbia University historian Mark Mazower’s cover story in the May issue of Prospect, a British magazine. The subhead: “Electoral politics has had a bad decade.”

Earlier this month, the Transatlantic Academy, a global partnership of think tanks led by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, issued “The Democratic Disconnect,” a sober report by a group of distinguished academics.

“Democracy is in trouble,” the report begins. “The collective engagement of a concerned citizenry for the public good — the bedrock of a healthy democracy — is eroding. Democratic governments often seem crippled in their capacity to deliver what their people want and need. They are neither as responsive nor as accountable as they need to be in an era of hard choices and rising nondemocratic powers. There is widespread concern about apparent declining rates of voter participation and about the alienation or disaffection of citizens from the political process.”