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Democracy Rocks!

It's Chaotic and Noisy and Opportunistic. And It Works.

August 13, 2000|JOHN BALZAR | John Balzar is a Roving National Correspondent for The Times whose last article for the magazine was about resorts on Fiji

Hungry, cold, cut off from supplies, fearful of attack, worried sick about the future--just what were the nation's first homesteaders to do?

Why, politics for starters.

Colonizing America, the settlers of Jamestown began the future with what we now regard as the most ordinary step. At the time they could have been accused of radicalism. They chose a leader. There would be no hereditary royalty, as in the land they fled. No hereditary chief, as in this new continent.

From among themselves they elected a president. The president's name is all but forgotten: Edward Maria Wingfield.

By autumn of that year, 1607, anxiety overcame the Virginia colonists, and they pink-slipped Wingfield in favor of John Ratcliffe, who was saddled with crisis graver than any president since. During that winter, 73 of the 105 original settlers perished from illness, exposure and starvation.

Survivors assembled and quarreled again about who would lead them. Habits, you see, were being formed. By majority vote, they turned to the adventuresome, self-promoting John Smith. He was elected president of the Jamestown Council on Sept. 10, 1608. Smith's discipline held them together until they were resupplied and reinforced. Then wouldn't you know. With improving conditions, colonist began to chafe under the imperious Smith. He lost a power struggle and was ousted after less than 13 months in office.

So it has been ever since: restless Americans in search of the right leader for the moment.

*

THE SIMPLE TOWN-COUNCIL MEETING HAS GROWN INTO AN elongated national roadshow, of course. For many citizens, time-worn doubts have hardened into cynicism. Democracy has not failed, but our process debases it. The presidential election system is, by varying degrees, a mess.

"Utterly bonkers," British critic Gavin Esler said of the U.S. presidential elections. For someone whose country is headed by the House of Windsor, that's a mouthful. "The dirty secret of American politics," Esler revealed last year in the London Independent, "is that the system for filling the most important job in the world is rotten to the core."

Oh, really?

Actually, the unspoken secret of American politics is that it's more pliant and self-correcting than the glib, ingrained cliches would have us think. And sometimes it's worthwhile to remind ourselves of this, even though the very durability of the system is secured by our suspicions about it.

"Democracy is still upon its trial. The civic genius of our people is its only bulwark," said the philosopher William James. That was 102 years ago. The same could be said today.

To give critics their case against campaign 2000: The big money of special interests has corrupted the process already. Voter turnout is likely to be lethargic, per usual. The campaign is scripted, the candidates synthetic. The political news media are obsessed with (fill in your choice) and overlooking (also your choice). The two dominant political parties tiptoe down the white line in the middle of the road. Outside voices aren't taken seriously.

What many find dispiriting is that it seems beyond control, as if other forces have gained sovereignty at our expense.

But pause. Consider where we are in light of where we've been. Behold a system that seeks, over and over again, nothing so much as to please.

"Are the American people getting what they ask for, in a broad sense? Yes," says Craig Allin, professor of political science at Cornell College. "I liken political relations to business relations: You satisfy the customer or you go out of business.

"Most of the time, given enough time, this is a government that will come to reflect any consensus that emerges," he says.

The second question begged by the first is more problematic. We've argued it for nearly four centuries. Are Americans wise in what they seek?

"I am more conflicted by that," says Allin. "What they are asking for may not be what they want or need."

The "genius of our people" was philosopher James' glorification of citizens in a democracy. Workaday Americans are not typically so generous in their assessment of each other. "The people," remarked that stubborn individualist Ralph Waldo Emerson, "are to be taken in very small doses."

*

ONE-HUNDRED AND EIGHTY YEARS AFTER JAMESTOWN, THE VISIONARY intellectuals whom we call the Founding Fathers decided they didn't trust us any more than Emerson did. They didn't trust authority, either. Mostly they trusted themselves, and that's what they enshrined in the Constitution. Or tried to.

The popular vote for president was calculated as a means to legitimize a president, but nothing more. An electoral college of state delegates was granted authority to make the actual choice. Further, many of the founders assumed that the college would never achieve a majority for a single candidate--thereby leaving the power to Congress, made up of the Founders themselves and men like them.

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