The Future of Freedom by Fareed Zakaria (Norton, 2003)
Irrespective of one’s political persuasions, one could interpret the recent California re-call and election as a rejection of the career politician, and a dismissal both of the Church Militant, crony-capitalist right wing of the Republicans and of the tax-and-spend, entitlement- and grievance-driven left wing of the Democrats. So was Arnold Schwarzenegger’s arrival as the “People’s Governor” a refreshing return to true democracy? “Not so fast”, might be Fareed Zakaria’s response. Characterizing the Golden State as ”dysfunctional” and “the poster child for direct democracy”, Zakaria goes on to claim that ”… much of the state’s mess is a result of its extreme form of open, non-hierarchical, non-party based, initiative-friendly democracy”. This best-selling work by the editor of Newsweek International is an incisive account of how liberal democracy has lost its way.
In an informative account of how our current freedoms evolved, the author is careful to make clear distinctions between the notions of “freedom” and those of “democracy”. Even Marx realized that it was the gentry and the capitalists who introduced liberalization to Europe, while the USA benefited from having no aristocratic, monarchic or ecclesiastic powers to threaten it. And key to effective democracy has been the existence of a strong party system. “Without parties, politics becomes a game for individuals, interests, and strong men.” Venezuela is a recent example where a strong man has maintained a popular majority while abandoning the country’s liberal constitution – hence the apparent paradox of “illiberal democracy”.
So where has the USA been going wrong? According to Zakaria, the rot started in South Dakota in 1898, with constitutional amendments for referendums, initiatives and recalls that bypassed the judgments of elected officials. After a hiatus, the House of Representatives’ class of 1974 finally blew it through its well-intentioned change of rules to allow more public scrutiny, and to broaden the sources of new bills and amendments. The result? Congress is now responsive primarily to money, lobbyists, polls, and special interests. The current backbiting race to find the Democratic Presidential Candidate is further evidence that the party system is no longer working, and the nation’s destiny could fall into the hands of a contest-winner determined by televisual appeal.
So our form of democracy has evolved into a tyranny of multiple majorities, where constitutional freedoms are at risk for those citizens who do not consider themselves as part of any special interest group. Eager reformers cannot pare back expensive government programs and subsidies, as the pressure groups and lobbyists hyperactively protect them, reminding the politicians of their sources of funds. Politicians end up following, not leading. What is worse, pressure is now on to install our variant of democracy into places like Iraq, which has no tradition of the constitutional balances that we can still fall back upon.
Zakaria exposes the problem brilliantly, but his concluding recipe for solving the problem is lame. “That means making democratic decision-making effective, reintegrating constitutional liberalism into the practice of democracy, rebuilding broken political institutions and civic associations”, he writes. (Sounds too subtle a job for the Terminator.) And he steps back from analyzing the true challenges to our freedoms: if deficits continue to mount, the authoritarianism required to put this country on a stable financial footing could bring the libertarians and the ACLU to apoplexy. Zakaria is also far too respectful of the power and legitimacy of the European Union, which he represents in almost infallible light. This is, however, an overall very stimulating volume, with few errors or contradictions. Read it, and then write to your Congressman as part of the “Roll Back Democracy!” campaign, suggesting that the clock should be turned back to about 1911, when senators were still elected by state legislatures, not directly by the people, and, incidentally, was the year when British Members of Parliament were first paid for their efforts. We need more of those patrician, independently wealthy and thus incorruptible citizens to represent us, right?