“Democracy is messy.”
I didn’t originate that. My old boss Don Rumsfeld did when the U.S. was first trying to put Iraq back together again, but it applies to democracy in general. And that is because democracy is a process, not an end. We cannot look forward to a “thousand-year Reich,” a “withering away of the state” or any other future state of nirvana.
We just have a set of principles sent down to us by the Founding Fathers in the form of:
• The Declaration of Independence.
• The Constitution, which lays out the six bases upon which “We the People” joined together (the Preamble).
• The process and form it would take (the body).
• A series of hedges around which we will not allow government or the people to cross (the Bill of Rights and the remaining amendments).
That and the Federalist Papers are all they gave us. If Ronald Reagan had been at the Constitutional Convention, he probably would have called the Constitution a document that was based on “trust but verify.”
It was fragile from the beginning.
At the close of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Benjamin Franklin was queried as he left Independence Hall on the final day of deliberation: “What have we got: a republic or a monarchy?”
Mr. Franklin is said to have responded: “A republic, if you can keep it.”
It is all we have. No more. It is based on trust in and by the people for defined periods of time limited by those messy periodic reviews called campaigns and elections.
Winston Churchill once remarked, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” He is also said to have mused, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”
And then there was President Harding’s frustration with it all.
As a group was leaving the Oval Office, he turned to a friend and lamented, “John, I can’t make a damn thing out of this tax problem. I listen to one side and they seem to be right and then — God! — I talk to the other side and they seem just as right, and here I am where I started.”
That could have been said as easily this past year as it was nearly a century ago. But, as has often been remarked, “legislation is like sausage: it tastes better if you don’t watch it being made.”
One time when I was on a U.S. Senate staff, I witnessed a couple of senators carrying a Senate colleague onto the floor so he could vote. He was too drunk to stand up by himself. Messy democracy.
This whole process is what my professor at the University of Southern California, Charles Lindblom (actually a guest professor from Yale University), a world-renowned economist, called “the science of muddling through.”
It was his contention that we are individually irrational and self-absorbed; and therefore, democracy succeeds not through rational planning and farsighted engineering, but somehow it works anyway.
It operates on a principle he called “partisan mutual adjustment” by which all sides jockey for what they want and end up with what they are willing to accept.
And so, as we look at all the turmoil, gridlock, anger, shortsighted arguments, petty “politics of personal destruction” and confusing partisan maneuvering, we just want it to cease.
It seems that if they can’t win on the issues, they try muddling the facts. If that doesn’t work, then they go after the individual. It reminds me of the movie “Back to School” where the main character’s sidekick remarks that his high school was so tough that once they sacked the quarterback, they went after his family.
The central question that Americans have to face through all this is: are the issues you believe in worth fighting for?
If you are opposed to abortion, is it worth fighting for? If you support the right to abortion, is it equally worth fighting for?
If you believe that your taxes are too high, that the money is just being wasted on government bureaucracy, and people ought to pay for their own problems anyway, isn’t it worth fighting for?
What if you believe that in this wealthiest country in the world, we ought to have better schools, provide better health care for everyone, and take better care of our seniors — and that those who are getting the most from the system can afford to pay more?
Or, do you believe that America is the last hope of civilization, and has an obligation to use that power to extend freedom and opportunity to all nations where we can including the use of our military forces?
Conversely, how important is it to you to get our troops home where they belong with their families, and let the people in foreign countries fight their own battles?
If none of these issues — or same-sex marriage, or government regulation of drug use, or the right of private property versus government regulation — is important enough to you to fight for, then I don’t have any way to influence how you think about the process.
But, if you feel passionately about any public issue enough to vote, contribute, attend a meeting, write a letter, or argue with family and friends, then you should understand that those engaged in actively trying to influence the outcomes of elections (because issues matter to them passionately) will present their cases however loudly, obnoxiously or irrationally they want.
Because they, too, believe they are right.
They also believe that if they do not win the public argument, then their vision of America (and America’s place in the world) will fail.
And they take that very personally. That includes officeholders, office seekers, campaigns and political parties, bureaucracies, interest groups, lobbyists, foreign governments and interests, taxpayers, benefit recipients, and all of the other “none of the above”-named individuals and groups that enter into the very messy process called democracy.
So, accept democracy with all its faults. Don’t get disgusted and tune out all of the confusing voices, or the harangue on the nightly news (actually now 24/7), or the cluttering of signs, billboards, junk mail, email spam and all the other annoying noise being sent your way.
It’s democracy in process.
Let’s have at it. Bring it on. Bore me. Frustrate me. Enlighten me. Because I hope that it is also you and I doing some of the grinding of the sausage in whatever way we can to see that our voices are also echoing in the halls of the mighty for those things we hold passionately dear.
And, as Bette Davis (playing Margo Channing, the aging Broadway star in 1950’s “All About Eve”) challenged: “Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.” But man, oh man: What a night!
• Larry L. Eastland is a Los Angeles-based businessman, an American Conservative Union board member and a Mormon bishop.