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民主的危機

A CRISIS IN DEMOCRACY?

The view from Norway to South Korea to America

By Tom Plate

March 5, 2004

LOS ANGELES -- Nobody ever claimed that constitutional democracy was perfect. It was Winston Churchill, after all, who pointed out in 1947 that it was the “worst form of government, except for all those others that have been tried." Even so, the United States, Great Britain and others still testify to democracy's unconditional desirability, if with Churchillian doggedness. But profound new doubts about the salience of democracy in this new millennium are surfacing from a number of serious sources. They deserve attention.

From Norway, of all places, comes an authoritative -- and disturbing -- self-reflection. "A remarkable study of democracy has reached its conclusion: rule by popular consent is disintegrating before our eyes," writes Stein Ringen, an Oxford sociology and social policy professor, in the cover story of The Times Literary Supplement, an influential, independent London-based review.

Ringen reports on the "Norwegian Study of Power and Democracy," a rigorous five-year intellectual effort initiated and funded by the Norwegian Parliament that came to the astonishing conclusion that Norway's constitutional democracy, widely viewed around the world as practically a global prototype, is in deep crisis. It has developed a serious disconnect between the people and those representing them.

That disconnect, concluded the commission of the country's leading political scientists and sociologists (www.sv.uio.no/mutr/english/index.html), is due to a number of factors. They include the evisceration of local government, excessive agenda-setting by the media, the business community's veto power over economic policy, supranational law that ties the hands of the national legislature and unrivaled judicial review.

These dysfunctional disconnects in the democratic chain of command are leading to democracy's erosion. "Bluntly," concludes Ringen, perhaps alluding to the decline in voter-participation levels in Norway and other democracies, "rational and informed citizens are right to be less interested in democracy."

Similarly, South Korean democracy is officially painted as in crisis. That is the proclaimed view of its elected president. And so, since taking office 13 months ago, Roh Moo Hyun has sought to launch what his government describes as a "sea change" in the power relationships among the Blue House, the constitutional institutions of government and South Korea's citizens. His basic thrust, though still a work in progress, is to push as much political power out of the central executive and back into the National Legislature and diverse Korean communities.

Roh's Korean experiment fascinates for two reasons. It seeks to counter South Korea's deeply embedded authoritarian traditions -- of the Imperial Presidency since 1987 and of dictatorship before that. And it aims to nurture a technological grassroots power-to-the-people movement that will enfranchise rather than alienate.

Roh, it needs to be said, is a self-proclaimed student of Abraham Lincoln, whose own views on and practice of democracy proved to be globally seminal. Roh's ambition (absurd? noble?) is to become that kind of transforming, unifying figure for Korea.

The house of Lincoln, of course, was far more divided than Roh's, and a disquieting new study suggests that the house of President George W. Bush is similarly fraught. Samuel Huntington, chairman of the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies, believes that America is currently on the road to becoming two separate societies. In the current Foreign Policy magazine (a Washington-based monthly), in the cover article "Hispanic Immigrants Threaten the American Way of Life," Huntington paints a bleak and pessimistic portrait. "The transformation of the United States into a [culturally bifurcated] country ... would not necessarily be the end of the world; it would, however, be the end of the America we have known for more than three centuries."

Huntington's view will inevitably be denounced as vile and racist. Latino scholars and political leaders will feel especially betrayed. But Huntington, a serious scholar, deserves to be respected for raising an issue that, in this age of political correctness, few would have the courage to join. Put another way, the issue is: Does the United States wish to proceed in a political direction that would make it more like bilingual Canada? Warns Huntington: "The cultural division between Hispanics and Anglos could replace the racial division between blacks and whites as the most serious cleavage in U.S. society." Mean, racist, whatever, this fundamental supposition about our national democratic direction needs to be addressed, not simply condemned.

After all, the United States is no hotbed of self-doubt, and the least conflicted proponent of democracy's universality, applicability and basic pure goodness is probably President Bush himself: "The world has a clear interest in the spread of democratic values .… They encourage the peaceful pursuit of a better life," he has said.That pleasant and comforting thought is one with which most Americans would concur. The only question is whether it is necessarily true.

 
 

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