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Democracy Under Siege

The Paralysis of America's Politics in an Age of Prosperity

DEMOCRACY DERAILED: Initiative Campaigns and the Power of Money, By David S. Broder. Harcourt: 244 pp., $23

THE PARADOX OF AMERICAN DEMOCRACY: Elites, Special Interests, and the Betrayal of Public Trust, By John B. Judis. Pantheon: 262 pp., $26

THE END OF POLITICS: Corporate Power and the Decline of the Public Sphere, By Carl Boggs.Guilford: 284 pp., $23.95

August 13, 2000|ELIZABETH DREW | Elizabeth Drew is the author of "On the Edge: The Clinton Presidency" and "The Corruption of American Politics: What Went Wrong and Why"


At perhaps no time since the Progressive Era, lasting from the late 19th century until the onset of World War I, have prosperity and a general sense of well-being so sharply contrasted with worried, negative diagnoses of the state of our democracy. The new American dilemma presents the picture of a highly prosperous, explosively inventive nation alongside one with a new, or updated, critique of the contrasts between contemporary euphoria and certain less satisfying realities. There have of course been times, in particular the '60s, when prominent writers and activists pointed out dramatic inequities masked by the complacency and apparent prosperity and self-celebration of the '50s.

At certain moments in our history, some voices get through, and on even rarer occasions, they affect policy. One thinks of Lincoln Steffens, whose writings led to reforms in the meat-packing industry, and Ida Tarbell, who contributed to the movement to break up Standard Oil and other monopolies. During the early '60s, Michael Harrington got our attention and his work led to the Kennedys'--in particular Robert Kennedy's--focus on trying to improve the lot of the poor. Also in the '60s, Ralph Nader's writing and political activities led to unprecedented legislation to provide federal protection of consumers, beginning with requirements for safer automobiles. All of these people were revolutionaries of sorts, revolutionaries who were focused and productive. More diffuse perhaps, the civil rights movement and its leaders--with Martin Luther King Jr. its most articulate voice, of course--forced America to face its racial hypocrisy. But perhaps at no time before has our nation enjoyed such a state of well-being while at the same time such basic questions are being raised about the fundamental fairness and workings of our political and economic systems.

Moreover, though we've enjoyed nearly 225 years of remarkable political stability (the Civil War an exception, of course) we still haven't resolved one of the most fundamental questions about our democracy--a question that underlay the debates of the Founding Fathers in Philadelphia. What does representative democracy really mean? Thomas Jefferson, who gave such expression to liberty as to affect world history, feared the effects of government over man, while his great friend James Madison worried about trusting man with almost unfettered self-government. (Thus, Madison's "If men were angels . . . " in the Federalist Papers.) Jefferson, serving as ambassador to France at the time, was concerned that the men in Philadelphia were giving too much power to a federal government--and his friend Madison wrote to reassure him. (At the same time, Jefferson was very slow to see the lethal implications and incipient anarchy of the French Revolution.)

The debate continues: To what extent should a democracy be governed by representatives of the people or directly by the people themselves? And, as will be seen through one of the books under review here, it isn't a purely theoretical issue. From the beginning of the Republic ("If you can keep it," said Benjamin Franklin), we have transferred power peacefully, and the individual American enjoys a remarkable amount of personal freedom. (A threat to this freedom may come from the misuse of new technology.)

Yet Americans have an increasing--and well-founded--sense that our democratic system isn't working as it should. Washington is increasingly paralyzed. Our politicians spend more time playing the angles than resolving national issues. The ever-growing role of money in elections has corrupted our political system to the greatest extent in the modern age, has contributed to that paralysis, and places a large thumb on the scale when decisions are made as to who benefits from the federal government. This, too, isn't a theoretical matter. It affects people's daily lives in numerous ways--whenever the Congress passes a tax bill, an appropriations bill, not to mention stacks of bills that obviously benefit the highest bidders or the contributors as opposed to the general public. And it affects people's daily lives when the Congress, in irons, fails to act on some of the preeminent issues of our time.

In the past, we had politicians openly on the take; we had Mark Hanna and Mark Twain's "The Gilded Age." But in the mid-'70s (after Nixon), the nation decreed that our politics should be cleaned up and the Congress passed a far-reaching campaign finance reform act. That's the baseline. Our politics are more corrupt now than ever because of the ever-growing pervasiveness of the use of money to affect legislation--and executive actions as well.

If our representative democracy isn't working as it should, are there constitutionally valid--and wise--ways to deal with that? If the inequities in our society are beyond acceptable, what is to be done? Three recently published books address these questions, in different ways and with different degrees of helpfulness.


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