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BOOK REVIEW : A Lundberg Attack on Democracy

October 18, 1989|JONATHAN KIRSCH

The Myth of Democracy by Ferdinand Lundberg (Carol Publishing Group/A Lyle Stuart Book: $11.95, 162 pages.)

If you ever have the good fortune to be seated next to Ferdinand Lundberg at a dinner party, you need not worry about making conversation. As we discover in "The Myth of Democracy," Lundberg is witty, articulate, opinionated, marvelously well-read and not the least bit shy about telling us exactly what he thinks about America and the mess we've made of it.

Lundberg, author of "The Rich and the Super-Rich," is a venerable controversialist and a veteran observer of American civilization whose credentials date back to the era of the New Deal. Here, he delivers a broadside that sums up his disillusionment with what passes for democracy in America.

"Contrary to what is widely taught in the schools of the United States and bruited about in the news media and expressions of politicians, the United States is not . . . a democracy," Lundberg insists. "In short, what is called American democracy is more facade than solid structure, something like a Russian Potemkin Village."

Lundberg reviews a parade of horribles in American politics and government: The ignorance and indifference of the American voter ("(T)he idea of citizens being fully informed about what the government is doing is merely another nonsensical notion"); the sterility of our political debate ("Bright ideas . . . are unusually shunned by both parties"); the dominance of lawyers in American government ("The American political system . . . has lawyers posted at every turn and could not function with a day without lawyers"); and the hollowness and mendacity of American politics ("A national election in the United States is never any more than pure theater").

Lundberg is a nonpartisan curmudgeon who is unimpressed by our so-called two-party system: "The way to gain votes, politicians have discovered, is to buy them indirectly through expensive tax-support programs . . . designed to produce . . . special support for all stragglers in the competitive battle of life," Lundberg writes.

Of course, there is a semantic trick at the heart of Lundberg's book--if we define democracy as the direct participation of the people in their own government, then there has been no real democracy in America since the Colonial Era. As soon as political power is delegated to the elected representatives who sit in the legislature or act as the chief executive, then--by definition--the form of government is a republic, not a democracy. Still, Lundberg is deeply disappointed in the day-to-day workings of the constitutional republic that governs the United States.

"There is no doubt that there is an infinitely greater amount of individual freedom under the Western governments than under the one-party dictatorships," Lundberg allows. "But . . . once constituted, (the) fundamental authority (of Western governments) is every bit as great as that of any dictatorship. . . . In other words, the ultimate order of a Western-type 'democratic' government is just as severe in its effect as the order of a Stalinist or Hitlerite government."

Lundberg seems to favor such rhetorical shockers in his otherwise elegant, well-reasoned prose. At one point, remarkably enough, he appears to argue that the atrocity propaganda spread by the Allies during World War I is what prompted the real atrocities of the Nazi era: "Germany was thoroughly calumniated by Allied propaganda (in the First World War)," he writes. "Here the ground was being prepared for Hitler, whose forces actually committed unspeakable deeds of frightfulness in the knowledge that they would be falsely accused even if they behaved impeccably."

"The Myth of Democracy" does not call for revolution, or even fundamental reform. ("It is not my task to show ways of dealing with the problems touched on," Lundberg demurs.) Rather, the author is content to seize us by the shoulders, shake us hard, and leave us with plenty to think about. Lundberg is a pamphleteer in the oldest traditions of democracy--and even if he is sometimes annoying or aggravating, he does us the favor of reminding us that the greatest threat to democracy is ignorance and indifference.

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