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Cynicism corrodes American democracy

Steve Haycox
OPINION: Columnist Steve Haycox argues that political disengagement puts American democracy at risk. Aaron Jansen illustration

The American government may be in some serious trouble. A Gallup poll released last week finds that confidence in all three of the branches, the Presidency, the Supreme Court and especially Congress, is at historic lows. Dissatisfaction with government performance is widespread; many people feel their leaders neither share nor protect their interests.  Moreover, the intense polarization our politics developed over the last decade and a half has caused many thoughtful writers to question whether the Constitution should be fundamentally revised.

The dysfunction has moved some analysts to question whether liberal democracy itself can survive.  The journalist Edmund Fawcett, who writes for the New York Times, the Guardian and the New Statesman, quotes the brilliant British Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm as saying shortly before his death two years ago that “none on the major problems facing humanity in the 21st century can be solved by the principles that still dominate the developed countries of the West.” Certainly the problems are legion. Poverty defeats governments’ best attempts to eradicate it; pressure on material resources seems unrelenting and unmanageable; immigration confounds definitions of national identity and cultural integrity; national security apparatus and power overwhelm concepts of individual freedom; income inequality and facility with information and its technology, together with problematic access to high-quality education, have produced a two-class social structure.

What are the principles of liberal democracy which inform the policies crafted to meet these challenges, the principles Hobsbawm claimed no longer work?  Fawcett suggests there are four core tenets: that the clash of interests and beliefs in society is inescapable; that human power, neither of the state nor the markets, nor social majorities or ethical authorities, is never to be trusted and thus must be closely monitored; but also that human life can improve, and that the framework of public life must and can show civic respect for everyone. Virtually all the western democracies endorse these tenets. The most powerful instruments for implementing them have been electoral politics, some form of the separation of powers (checks and balances, which are particularly severe in the U.S.), a free, unlimited press, and concomitant oversight of government and the military.

Not everyone is entirely pessimistic.  Fawcett quotes the philosopher Karl Popper as listing the benefits enjoyed by residents in the liberal democracies of western Europe and the U.S.: free markets, popular elections, welfare systems and personal liberties. Of the residents in these countries, Popper wrote, “never before have their human rights and their human dignity been so respected, and never before have so many been as ready to bring great sacrifices for others, especially those less fortunate than themselves.”

Does the current despair threaten democracy?  If people become so cynical that they eschew any sort of political involvement, it might. In 1935 Upton Sinclair published a political novel titled "It Can’t Happen Here." A warning, it told the story of a populist politician who became president by promising to bring order out of chaos, then proceeded to implement a Hitler-style dictatorship, abetted by a sympathetic military.  About the same time the novel came out, one U.S. Senator called for a bit of “Mussolini-type dictatorship” to save the country.  Civic malaise generated both fascist and communist adherents in America.  History suggests that the future is never secured by the present; the survival of liberal democracy today is not inevitable.

Out greatest challenge is surely political disengagement. “Checking out” of politics may hand electoral power to extreme minorities which may pursue self-serving agendas benefiting only their interests, often inimical to the majority.  Safety and community lie in changing politics, not ignoring it.  And the first instrument of such change is engagement, first in self-education, then in voting, then in some level of direct participation, such as active scrutiny of and support for local causes.

This is a matter of civic responsibility, the price, or better understood, the opportunity afforded by residence in a liberal democracy. Those who drafted the Alaska Constitution fully recognized this trade-off when they wrote in Article 1 that along with natural rights to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, the reward of one's industry, and equal rights, opportunities and protection, Alaskans “have corresponding obligations to the people and to the State.”

Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.