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
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.