Have We Given Democracy a Bad Name?

I was struck recently by an interview conducted recently by McKinsey & Company with Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide Global CEO, Christopher Graves. Discussing India, Graves was opining on what the country needs to do to improve its prospects and attract foreign direct investment. Graves said, “India has often baked into part of its investment brand a few amazing attributes, such as being the world’s largest democracy, the world’s largest English-speaking country, for example, and used those as attractions for would-be foreign direct investment.” So here’s the striking part: “There are a couple of problems with that. One, if you look at the world’s most famous democracy, the United States of America, you find nothing but dysfunction at the moment. So actually leveraging democracy as expressed by Americans at this point may not be such a great brand attribute.”

Can that really be true?

Contrast this with the End of History. No, I don’t mean the event but the article. As the millennium turned there was no more discussed a piece than Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 essay “The End of History?” published in the international affairs journal The National Interest. The idea was that the West won the Cold War but more significantly, that democracy had trumped every other way of life. Here’s how Fukuyama, building on Hegel’s political philosophy put it:  “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”


So the question is how final is final? At a time when approval of congress is at 13%, some critics are now wondering if our conclusive answer to all of humanity’s ills needs fixing from the ground up. Google the words “democracy” and “broken” and you get pages upon pages of thought pieces and articles. Jeffrey Toobin in the New Yorker explores the possibility that the Constitution, the most formidable democratic document since the Magna Carta, may need an update.  “In many ways the contemporary debate reflects the framers’ arguments, more than two centuries ago,” he writes. “How insulated should elected officials be from the demands of the people? How should power be divided among the federal and state governments? What rights of the individual must be protected against the claims of the government? The Constitution offers only contingent answers to these questions…On the left and the right, [critics] are asking whether the pervasive dysfunction in Washington is in spite of the Constitution or because of it.”

Putting that question aside, other countries are now flaunting their own rejoinders to democracy. Take the Chinese who are now using aspirational rhetorical strategies clearly borrowed from the Americans to sell their vision. The new leader Xi Jinping has unveiled his big idea, the “Chinese Dream”. It boils down to making China a “moderately well-off society” (there’s a phrase that would never pass muster in an American election) by 2020, the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party; and making China a fully developed nation by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic. The Chinese Dream has four parts: Strong China (economically, politically, diplomatically, scientifically, militarily); Civilized China (equity and fairness, rich culture, high morals); Harmonious China (amity among social classes); Beautiful China (healthy environment, low pollution). All of this sounds benign until you realize that it’s promoted as part of a one-party system. As the NY Times describes the philosophy, “only the Communist Party can continue to improve citizen’s standard of living (and ameliorate severe social and economic disparities); only the party can maintain a stable, unified country and construct a happy, harmonious society; and only the party can effect the “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” which stresses a firm command of “core interests” (i.e., sovereignty and territoriality) and increasing global respect. It’s interesting to see how this gets refracted in the Chinese presses. The Beijing Review quotes a Chinese official at length attempting to crystallize the Chinese Dream: “People are confident in the Chinese dream because we have found the correct road to realize it. That road is socialism with Chinese characteristics. Along this road, we have implemented the reform and opening-up policy for 35 years. During this period, China’s GDP has increased 142-fold and urban residents’ income 71-fold. People’s living standards have been drastically improved, and so has our national strength. Now, we are closer to our dream and goals than ever.”

If all this sounds utopian, it’s meant to. Unlike democratic rhetoric which is messy and contingent (in other words planted in the real world) it drives towards an endgame and a hazy future of untroubled fixity.

Apart from the Chinese mix of socialism, central planning and the free market, could other systems arise and gain traction (like Brazil’s mix of a hefty public sector and free market liberalism)? Perhaps, but not everyone thinks that democracy has come a cropper. Larry Summers argues for the achievements of our system this way: “At last, universal healthcare is in sight. Within a decade, it is likely that the United States will no longer be a net importer of fossil fuels. Financial regulation is not in a fully satisfactory place but has received its most substantial overhaul in 75 years. Gay marriage has become widely accepted across the states. No remotely comparable list can be put forth for Japan or Western Europe.”. Consider that Japan is pulling itself out of two lost decades of economic doldrums by instituting American-style quantitative easing, and Europe could be next. Talk to people around the world and you see that our system, for all its numerous flaws, still has its occasional wins.

Three things about the state of our democracy to keep in mind: One, according to the White House, the United States has been the world’s largest recipient of foreign direct investment (FDI) since 2006.  For 2012, FDI inflows totaled $166 billion.  Writing in the Huffington Post, FDI experts Robert Wolf and Barry Johnson qualify this by saying that “In the period 1999 to 2012, the US share of annual global foreign direct investment flows fell by more than half, from 26 per cent to 12 per cent.” However, a fair accounting would point out that a great deal of this is not because of American dysfunction but because Europe and the developing world were growing at stratospheric rates for much of that period. Secondly, saying that democracy is broken is as old as the system itself. David Runciman, professor of politics at the University of Cambridge, does a creditable job of laying out the broadsides since the dawn of our republic. Thirdly, Tocqueville called democracy an “untimely” form of government because it plays a long game and only shows its principal strength once the dust settles—namely that our systems has an unbeatable ability to self-correct (not to mention it’s the only system to figure out how to peacefully transfer power). Maybe that’s what’s happening right now in a small way with the December surprise out of Washington – a bipartisan budget deal brokered by Paul Ryan and Patty Murray. It’s a small glance of government coming back from the brink, staving off radicalism and starting to work again. A small victory but one we should hold on to as proof that the system, for all its flaws, is far from broken.