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Is Democracy In Trouble?

Memo Pad Politics

Is Democracy In Trouble?


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.”

E. J. Dionne

Besides contributing to The National Memo, E.J. Dionne, Jr. is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a syndicated columnist for the Washington Post, and a university professor in the Foundations of Democracy and Culture at Georgetown University.

His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (2013).

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  1. Tom_P May 20, 2013

    Why should politicians change their perspective? They’re serving their real constituency (the wealthy). This situation won’t last forever, but I imagine they’re quite content in their beds.

    1. InsideEye May 20, 2013

      We need liitle government All is well, this is how it is supposed to work or… ..non-work….. A stalemate. Everyone should make themselves more self reliant as our pre—-deceasers did, They came off the boats looking for a chance and here we are. Have we failed their expectaions of us….cry babies????? It only took less than a generation to achieve a great living standard for many. no English , degrees paid for by loans and working … Even Asians….very unique language, can learn English and be Valedictorians….We have to expect more of OURSELVES and then we will get whatever we WORK for , Earning not taking and excel as well , but…..Everyone must get of their BUTTS already, instead of whining.

      1. Susan Dean May 20, 2013

        It’s pretty hard to get off one’s butt and work when the jobs have gone to third world countries and the few that are left are being killed by the sequester.

        1. InsideEye May 20, 2013

          NAFTA should be abandoned, let jobs stay here. If you want to build Fords in Mexico or elsewhere they should be sold to the home countries, why should we lower our standards ….the aspirations of our grandparents were to come here and succeed and be able to provide at this level after achieving a
          piece of the American Dream. there is not much of a dream left for native ? Americans. It only took less than a generation to achieve a great living standard. Even myself, no English , 4 degrees paid for by loans and working …at times washing bakery pans…. It can be done and it was fun also. …Seems There was more money left over…only a few years ago !!!! Off Shore
          policies were promulgated and signed off by congress and the various presidents as in NAFTA, including off shore banking these are all legal ……even for Romney and countless…unmentioned others.

        2. lana ward May 20, 2013

          The jobs have gone because Obama has put so many regulations on businesses they’ve had to cut back on workers or close. Same with Ocare, employees hours have been cut because employers can’t afford to pay for it. Obama “says” he wants to help the middle class but everything he does is destroying it!!!

          1. Grumpy May 21, 2013

            Stop the nonsense, Pres, Obama had NOTHING to do with destroying the middle class. Jobs have been sent overseas for a few decades. Pres. Obama has been in office for 5 years. When he took office Geo.Bush had taken this country to the brink of disaster with TWO WARS. Remember that, were you born, the bank crisis, remember that? give the Pres. a break, OK. Don’t just spout off and not tell the truth. He has not been perfect but a hell of a lot better than the last few presidents what we’ve had.

          2. lana ward May 21, 2013

            Everything Obama is doing is destroying the country. Now he has the IRS targeting all conservatives, he is unlawfully snooping on the press

      2. Grumpy May 21, 2013

        You may have an Inside eye but a blind person can see that if there are no jobs you can not work. Be an entrepreneur? Everyone is not capable, most of us work for other people. Do you think all these millions of people who are out of work are lazy? Of course the gov’t can not take care of us, but the Gov’t needs to stop working against us. Pres. Obama has tried his darndest to get a jobs bill through to jump start this economy but he has had nothing but the GOP saying NO. Where have you been?

  2. Dominick Vila May 20, 2013

    Yes, there is something a lot bigger than governmental dysfunction. What many fellow Americans are advocating, perhaps unknowingly, is anarchy.
    As for the effectiveness of our government, I would say it is as ineffective as ever. Our government and the media are controlled by special interests, money determines the outcome of our elections, and our laws are designed to help the privileged few at the expense of most Americans. Our politicians are more likely to focus on issues that benefit their respective parties than what is best for our national security and our well being.
    We must reflect on what is going on and change the system from within, before the system destroys us.

    1. suddencall May 20, 2013

      Good luck with that . Do not hold your breath.The overthrow of the USA is almost complete.

      1. SaneJane May 20, 2013

        Overthrown in favor of what? Who is overthrowing and who will be in power?

        1. lana ward May 20, 2013

          Google, Muslim Purchase of the United States Presidency. It is an article written by Valerie Jarretts’ father in law, Vernon Jarrett in 1979. It tells of Muslims taking over America–we are there right now

      2. Garry Owen Ault May 20, 2013

        Very true. Glad I’m growing older – wont be around for the change to
        “The Hunger Games” that is coming hellbent for destruction. Best thing
        though is the 1 % crowd will Win it, and the Earth will destroy them by
        2050. Wonder if they will provide the new energy in several hundred
        thousand Years?

      3. 4sanity4all May 20, 2013

        Don’t sit around making silly statements. Get off your behind and work for good!

    2. tdm3624 May 20, 2013

      I don’t think the system will destroy us but, because of all the factors you mentioned above, the electorate will turn to a charismatic, dictator type person who promises to sweep into Washington D.C. and turn out the bureaucrats; much like Julius Caesar (later Augustus) took power away from the corrupt Roman Senate. Congress needs to grow up and do their job.

    3. lana ward May 20, 2013

      To late. The destroyer is in the WH. Dictator Heil Obama

  3. disqus_ivSI3ByGmh May 20, 2013

    As long as politicians are willing to do their utmost to restrict people from voting, Democracy will continue to be in trouble.

    1. sigrid28 May 20, 2013

      If the pace of democracy kept up with the 21st century, merit could once again trump money when it comes to the best candidates winning elections. In the age of picking the next American Idol overnight and daily political polls, the U.S. electoral process is so Byzantine that you have to wait years to cast your vote, stand in line forever, read a twenty-five-page ballot, and then pull the lever on an antiquated ballot box. Now comes another delay, waiting sometimes a week or more to find out the winner, who then has to wait almost two months to take office. Turn to C-Span one of the 180 or so days our Congress is in session, and force yourself to watch the glacial pace of just one vote. Am I the only liberal contracting ADHD waiting for the 2014 midterm elections?

    2. Daniel Murphy May 20, 2013

      I hope by your statement you meant to say “Republicans”, going all out to keep citizens from voting…NOT Democrats.

  4. Melvin Miller May 20, 2013

    Democracy is definitely in trouble when one party has the mindset that things must be done their way or no way; when the US Supreme Court declares that corporations are people; blatant voter suppression tactics; Congress ignores the will of the people on background checks for firearm purchases; democracy for some and not others; these are just a few disturbing trends that threaten democracy. But then again, this is not a true democracy anyway.

    1. suddencall May 20, 2013

      When the people sit around and let foriegn sympathizers kill their children for money on the bottom line , then hope is pretty thin and mostly out of reach.Americans should be ashamed of themselves.

      1. Madelaine Ayers Henne May 20, 2013

        What foriegn sympathizers are killing out children?

  5. latebloomingrandma May 20, 2013

    Our Founding Fathers anticipated this democracy thing as an experiment in self government. Seems to me the success of self gov’t is directly tied to the integrity of the people who are elected to represent the people. Representatives who are honest and patriotic in the way that they care about the direction of the country, not the phony patriotism of bombast and pitting citizens against one another and undermining each other. . Many people try to insist that we are a “Christian” nation. If so, where are they? In the NRA? In corporate boardrooms? In banks? In the military? On the radio? In Congress? Are they even in churches? Would Christ recognize any of them?

    Is it possible to elect people to public office with real integrity, people who understand about doing the right thing for the right reason? Or to have people in the labyrinth of a beaurocracy to actually have a work ethic and understand their responsibility? Rather than a blanket statement that government is too big to manage, it all comes down to the quality of the people. People who don’t just think–What’s in it for me?

  6. Madelaine Ayers Henne May 20, 2013

    And we wonder why ALL Ameicans don’t vote? In this atmosphere, it’s easy to see why. They figure why bother when it won’t make any difference in the long run! Money owns it all no matter who gets voted in. Apathy is alive and breeding in this fauz democracy.

  7. idamag May 20, 2013

    When you have a third party sending whack jobs to congress you have a problem. Yes, our Democracy is in jeopardy. The third party has a rigid set of comuthink that everyone that belongs must adhere to. Their members are not allowed to vote their conscience. Members of that party were sent to Washington (supposedly) to protect our Government and our country. Yet, as a body they signed pledges to a Las Vegas gaming mogul. Proof that they owe their allegiance to big money. Sadly, we have people who are not even paying attention to these shenanigans.

    1. Jane Rimmer May 20, 2013

      We do not have a third party. The Tea Party element is currently part of the Republican Party. And that is part of the problems that the GOP has, the Tea Party element has dragged the GOP farther and farther to the ultra-right. The TP element does not allow any of the Republicans to work in the center, or center right; they do not allow compromise, or even intelligent discussion. If the Republicans could kick out the TP, force them to actually become a third party, the GOP would work a little more for the good of the people. But the GOP also realizes that without the numbers of the TP, there would not be enough votes to ever be elected again. So the true Republicans, who are interested in what is best for America; they’re caught between a rock and a hard place.

      1. 4sanity4all May 20, 2013

        So, Republicans sell out their common sense for a few votes, and financial backing. That is despicable. And yet, when challenged, they double down on the baloney. I have heard of a few Republicans voting Democratic because they could not stomach what the GOP has become. Good for them! If more Republicans do that, they will eventually be able to run some good candidates again, and reclaim what the GOP used to stand for. And then we will be able to have actual debates, compromise, and consensus in the Senate and House.

      2. idamag May 21, 2013

        I agree with most of what you said, but the I think the tea party is a third party that is destroying the Republican Party. I read the book, “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.” It defines what happened to Germany. Germany had a democracy. The great depression hit them harder than it hit the United States. To add to the problem, the allies refused to forgive the repatriations that were hurting Germany. Along comes a third party disguised as a part of the party system that was in place. Germany’s democracy imploded.

  8. Michael Whitehead May 20, 2013

    I’m just a 63 yr old man, who spends much too much time reading articles and comments posted to them. But, even to this old fart some things stand up and scream to be paid attention to. All of the comments here are true. We all know what the problems are. The problem is what do we do about them? There are millions of people in this country who feel exactly the same way we do.

    What needs to happen is to somehow bring about a kind of a “merger” of all the like thinking groups. Grassroots activism. Strength in numbers, and all that. The last election proved that these super pac’s and all of their money couldn’t buy the presidential election. We need to bring that same strength to bear on the upcoming senate and house elections. Let our massed feelings be known to all of them. Their days are numbered. Knock on doors and make innumerable telephone calls. Solicit donations to do ad buys.

    If I was younger and had the energy I would start the ball rolling. Alas, that is not to be. But I know in my heart that somewhere out there is a natural leader, capable of bringing all the different groups together.

    Together, no politician will be able to deny our will, our wishes. But the time to begin an action like this is now. Not tomorrow. Not next week. Now.

    So much for my two cents.

    1. Barbara Morgan May 20, 2013

      Michael, you can do something, use your computer and let people know what what you think will help this Country and show what is wrong with the way things are done now. I am older than you and not in good health but I do try and get out the word about what is happening in Congress and what I think needs to be done to get this Country back on track where no matter what party a politican belongs to they need to put Country first not their political pary and need to realize that what they do in DC effects all of us not just one town,one county, one state but all ttowns, all counties and 50 states plus territories. You can get the ball rolling in your home town then in your county and with others in your state. We older fokls may not have the health and enegry that we used to have but we can use computers, letters and other means of communications and get the ball rolling to get our Country back on track.

    2. Daniel Murphy May 20, 2013

      Thank you Michael, for something refreshing from all the “truth”, but always accompanied by so much whining. Namely…SOLUTIONS! You’re spot on in your analysis, it’s going to take a SERIOUS effort from the governed to undo so much terrible “misrule”…but it is most definitely attainable. It’s about us – causing the survival of our representative government. If your not willing to stick your neck out for it..your only aiding and abetting the seditionist’s and plutocrats. “Democracy is not a vicarious experience” – Bill Bradley

    3. 4sanity4all May 20, 2013

      I have been doing my best. I vote in every election, even local ones with little on the ballot. Just to be sure no one is slipping anything past me. I have been sending e-mails and phone calls to my legislators, so they know what I think. I even send messages and letters to Republicans from other states, so they hear the other side for a change. And I have been sending small contributions to liberal organizations that are working to right this mess. I am not rich like Koch, but if we all send $5 to promote women having access to birth control, for example, it adds up to do some good. Instead of cursing the darkness, I am lighting candles whenever I can. I also respond to online trolls, as you do, to put some common sense out there. And I always encourage people to vote- it really does matter. My husband lost a re-election to city council, by a mere 43 votes. After the election, people were shocked that he lost. They all thought that since he had done such a great job, that everyone would come out to vote for him. When I asked, did you come out to vote, they always answered, no, but I thought everyone else would.

    4. lana ward May 20, 2013

      The super pacs didn’t buy the election, the IRS with Obama did

      1. Grumpy May 21, 2013

        You need to quit.

        1. lana ward May 21, 2013

          Obama stole the election with the help of the crooked IRS. Heil Obama!!!

  9. Michael Kollmorgen May 20, 2013

    The ONLY way to change the system from within is to take the Money, Lobbying by interested parties and Greed out of the Political Process.

    This would be a great start. But, there is much more to do to repair our dysfunctional system of politics. They and us should fully realize that Compromise should be the order of the day.

    They and us should also realize that any one particular country’s wealth and resources is not infinite and that only 10% of any country’s elite can not hold over 70% of its wealth, which leaves 90%, the rest of us struggling to make do with the left over 30% of its total wealth.

    Call it wealth Re-Distribution, Socialism at its worst, whatever it takes, our political process, perhaps even the very nature of our form of government, must change to reflect the needs of the common man, not the Elite.

    As far as I’m concerned, our form of government has become more corrupted because of money and the accumulation of power from the top than at any other time in the history of this country.

    Is there any wonder why people in general have become so disillusioned over the political process? People in my age group, the 60+ age group is already disillusioned and feel disfranchised. And, the age group which stands to become even more disillusioned is our youth as they enter the workforce, where there is very little hope for a decent wage, let along advancements up the ladder, whether it’s in the factory or in the corporate world.

    Is there any real hope for either age group? I believe there is still “some” hope left. But, it’s dwindling in leaps and bounds. As my age group dies off, our youth is expected to take our place and hopefully build a better America, whatever the hell that means anymore.

    There isn’t much of a chance left. We are headed for major changes and we’d better start feeling comfortable with a totally different form of government in this country, including all of the other so-called democracies, unless we want to see total anarchy.

    The People will have their final say in what form of government we finally have. History constantly shows that the Elite can not sustain itself and neither can a corrupted government. The People will not tolerate it for very long.

    I just hope it happens peacefully. Odds are – it won’t!

    1. Garry Owen Ault May 20, 2013

      Well, it is getting closer but does not yet match the Golden Age of the 1920,s.

      1. Michael Kollmorgen May 20, 2013

        You are absolutely right!

        Things aren’t as bad it was during those years. The only reason it isn’t was because Obama bailed out all the Auto Makers, etc.

        If he hadn’t of done that, we’d be in a depression just as bad as it was during those years.

        Yes, things seem to be picking up a bit. But, we still got a long way to go to full recovery. I don’t see how we can do it since most of our manufacturing base’s been gutted to China.

        Hell, I doubt this country could even fight a full-fledged conventionally-styled WW2-type War – without using Nukes. We couldn’t turn out enough Tanks and Ships fast enough. We just don’t have the manufacturing capabilities anymore. And, counting on technology to save the day won’t work either. You got to have hardware, not software. Heck, a few well-placed Neutron Bombs here would knock out just about all communication.

        You can’t survive on only a “service based” economy. It just don’t work that way, not unless we want 3 or more families living in one household anyway. They do that sort of thing in 3rd World Countries. That’s not supposed to happen here. Besides, most of our modern(?) housing codes would never permit it. Shanty Towns?, you know that would not be permitted either.

        1. idamag May 21, 2013

          A cyber attack could wipe out all communications.

  10. elw May 20, 2013

    This is not the first time our Democracy has been in trouble. In the 1950s Joseph McCarthy stomped his way through multiple hearings on witch hunt for American Communists, a witch hunt that was based on lies and hurt many innocent people but did ultimately fail. All it took is the collective disgust of the American people along with a few good elected officials that were not afraid to stand up and act. We can do that again with the Radicalize Republican minority whose witch hunt is making about as little sense as McCarthy’s did.

    1. 4sanity4all May 20, 2013

      I agree. I am not willing to count out our great country, and all it can be.

  11. Mark Forsyth May 20, 2013

    Since the days of FDR ,facism has been a threat to our country and the biggest threat has come and continues to come from corporate America.They do everything to disenfranchise the voter and subvert the infrastructure of American life.That is not to say that all corporations are suspect.Unfortunately the piece of crap we have all come to know as Citizens United,not only works to encourage facist activities but besmirches the reputations of U.S. corporations whose operations are not nefarious.I don’t know what the solution is but I think that anyone who is running for public office should be made to undergo a serious investigation into their belief system before recieving the public trust.It’s nothing short of a damn crying shame to have voted for those who refuse to do the job they were elected for and it is too bad that we have gotten away from the days of tar and feathers and when a persons word meant something.

    1. Michael Kollmorgen May 20, 2013

      There is NO Honor in Politics and Business. Matter of fact, there don’t seem to be much honor even among average Americans anymore.

      A simple handshake, taking someones word used to mean something. It really don’t anymore.

      No Communist will take over the US. No Fascist Dictator will either. That’s of course, if things keep going as they are. What IS taking over the country and nearly completely within the next few years – is Corporate Power.

      1. Mark Forsyth May 20, 2013

        I don’t say that we are at risk of having a fascist dictator but if we end up with corporations in complete control of government then fascism is what we will have and nothing else.Only fools are afraid of communism and they are the ones who are unable of differentiating a communist from a socialist or a fascist.Just don’t fall for anyone who starts promoting radical nationalism.That is one of the dynamics that got the mess started the last time.

  12. Edward Kirby May 20, 2013

    Our government has become profoundly undemocratic.

    The House: In this past election, voters chose Democratic candidates by a wide margin, yet thanks to high-tech gerrymandering, the Republicans still have a majority.

    The Senate: most of the low population states have Republican senators, and an article last month in the Washington Post described how a majority of the senators represent only 17.82% of the population. [Worse, senators representing only 11.27% of the population can successfully filibuster legislation.]

    The President: It is well-known that a handful of swing states determine the election. But even that have been narrowed down to a few key counties thanks to the same high-tech as above (detailed election roll databases). With advances in Big Data and algorithms, this will only get worse.

    And the Supreme Court is undemocratic by design.

    The claim that, technically, we are a republic, not a democracy is an old one, and its false. The 17th Amendment eliminated the republican basis of the Senate. [A huge mistake; read the Federalist Papers to find out why.] As a result, there is really no point in even having a two chamber bicameral legislature anymore.

    GOP feels no need to compromise, and the above is why.

    Historical note: for two and a half centuries after Julius Caesar overthrew the Roman Republic and became a dictatorship, the people of Rome (including their senators and even their emperors) still believed they lived in a Republic.

    How did that end?

    1. Mark Forsyth May 21, 2013


      1. idamag May 21, 2013

        So, you also studied history and know that some beautiful democracies were destroyed by barbarians?

        1. Mark Forsyth May 21, 2013

          Do you have a problem with that?Certainly you would not call the Roman Empire a beautiful democracy.

  13. m8lsem May 21, 2013

    A wiser man than any of us once said, “democracy is the worst form of government except all those others that have been tried from time to time.” That’s Winston Churchill.

  14. Michael Rae May 21, 2013

    I would love a parlementary system here in the usa Then politicans would be forced to form a coalilition to remain in power and this in my view would lead to less dysfuntional government like we have now. Moreover politicans would be more responsive to the will of the people and not the coporate donors like we have now. the sad part is our way of government is not going away anytime soon and the dysfunction will continue. Democracy in the United States is a joke and basically comes down to the golden rule. you have the gold, you make the rules and regular folks are tuning out en mass.

    1. Michael Kollmorgen May 25, 2013

      I’ve been advocating this very same thing for years.

      We’ll have to have a complete government overthrow before this could ever take place though. Our form of government will never willingly change to a different form of government.

      Good Luck with this……………….

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