The Pattern of Democratic Decline

It is not about tinkering; it’s about making moral judgments.

The ramparts of American democracy remain strong, if subtly undermined by long-term trends I have discussed elsewhere. The gathering hordes stand not at the walls but within and can hardly be called “hordes” at all, though they are, because a rampaging crowd of the rich is not what the term “horde” typically brings to mind. But it is the rich of America, not the poor of the world, who are focusing their energies against us. If American democracy is to be successfully defended against these, well, hordes–for they are multitudinous and they are running amok, then Americans must come to understand the context of events so they can give proper meaning to those events.

Politicians’ lies about the reasons for sending American soldiers to die in foreign lands might perhaps be explained away, though we forgive such sins at our peril. Financiers’ attempts to destroy government regulatory oversight and carve out special exemptions from anti-gambling statues in a mad rush to get rich quick with our money may be interpreted by the generous as just another example of “boys will be boys.” The eagerness of the banking community, which–as the place we all put our money for safekeeping–should be the most conservative and risk-averse institution in society, to join in the fun and games ought at least to begin to give one a funny feeling in one’s stomach. The viciousness of the battle to provide health care as a right rather than a privilege for the privileged could only shock any foreigner, but the U.S. remains, as we members well know, something of a primitive, frontier society with a long list of its own special prejudices, and the idea that society should ignore the health of the poor has always been one of the most cherished, so, self-defeating as it may be, at least it is nothing new. The egregiously contemptuous attitude toward the environment of BP and the sickening effort by Washington to kiss up and explain away BP’s flouting of the rules is also just the worst of an endless series of needlessly and inexcusably rapacious thefts by corporations of America’s dwindling heritage; inexcusable but hardly surprising. And now, after a decade of astonishing examples of corruption and irresponsibility, the latest is the emerging scandal of the clearly intentional, industry-wide practice of corruption in the process of foreclosing and reselling homes, i.e., the process of kicking people out on to the street because, most likely, they lost their jobs in the recession that same financial elite created and the process of selling those homes to unsuspecting buyers. It’s quite a coup when a middleman can manage to cheat both buyer and seller.

Each of the above events, in isolation, can be explained away as a bad apple in a good barrel, but when you put any one of them in the context of all the others, the picture becomes vastly darker: a pattern of fundamental corruption across virtually all of the major institutions of American society, an elite gone mad with greed and short-sighted irresponsibility…gamblers burning down the barn in which they raise their racehorses in order to collect on the fire insurance.

There is, fortunately, some good news. The media, albeit vastly compromised, did finally bring itself to write up this scandal, though rather later than it perhaps should have, and Washington now seems to be taking notice. If democracy is on life-support, at least its heart continues to beat, though there is precious little evidence of any willingness to adopt a more healthful diet.

More seriously by far, the voters seem oblivious to the underlying message of this long pattern of corruption: it is not a matter of tinkering with administrative procedures but of facing up to immorality at the heart of society. The “elite” in America may be trying its best to make itself hereditary, but it still is not; the “elite” is composed of all who “make it good,” and they are making it good by cheating. If Big Finance can only succeed by impoverishing the society off which it lives, if oil can only be pumped by poisoning the nation’s fisheries, if politicians are to be allowed to get away with starting wars on false pretenses that leave the country less secure and more impoverished, then America is sliding down a slippery slope.

Those who make good by cheating must be punished – perhaps because they deserve it but more to teach the lesson that a democracy cannot tolerate such behavior and survive. It is not yet 1917 in America nor is it 1789, but the tsars and the kings did not see their revolutions coming either. Reform during a revolution is more likely than not just to pour gasoline on the fire. However, to punish the guilty, one must make a moral judgment, and that is precisely where America is in denial.

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