- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 30, 2000

In "The Paradox of American Democracy," John B. Judis paints a world of black and white. There are good guys disinterested elites and public interest firms; and bad guys the special (or business) interests. These two sides, Mr. Judis tells us, have competed against one another for the past 100 years, each fighting viciously to gain advantage. Both have had their successes: The good guys succeeded during the Progressive Era, the New Deal, and the 1960s Great Society, and democracy prospered. The agents of business did well during the 1920s and the 1980s and democracy faltered.
At present, the bad guys are still winning, and this, according to Mr. Judis, is very bad indeed. Congress fritters away erstwhile opportunities to reform itself and "invest" in education, health care, and transportation because it is beholden to special (as opposed to public) interests. Meanwhile, the American people suffer through the longest peacetime economic expansion in the history of the nation.
In this book, legislative debates are never about legitimate disagreements over policy. Rather, they are about leveraging power between the people and corporate interests. By and large, Republicans favor the latter, and Democrats support the people. Time and again, Mr. Judis simplifies legitimate arguments to fit this bipolar narrative.
Take, for example, the issue of campaign finance reform. Despite overwhelming public pressure to "reform," Mr. Judis writes, our lawmakers persist in doing nothing. He notes that "a September 1997 CNN/ Gallup poll showed that by a margin of 55 to 35 percent, Americans wanted campaign finance reform passed by the end of the year."
With such an overwhelming mandate, Mr. Judis posits, the only thing stopping them must have been the greedy hand of business. He neglects to mention that, when people are asked to rank issues by importance, campaign finance reform always finishes near the bottom. While people might have a moderately favorable opinion of such a reform, it is certainly not something that they demand.
Similarly, in the eyes of Mr. Judis, the defeat of the Clinton administration's plan to offer universal health care coverage came not from a reasoned policy debate nor from resistance to a massive, new government entitlement. Instead, Mr. Judis writes, "the defeat of Clinton's health care plan was sparked by conservative political operatives and politicians who had little knowledge of or interest in health care legislation, but who feared that through the passing of health care reform, Clinton would create a lasting Democratic majority."
Never mind that the health care issue arose in 1994, when both houses of the U.S. Congress were dominated by Democratic majorities. Abandonment by moderate Democrats (many of whom had spent their legislative careers thinking about the issue), not rabid conservatives, felled the Clinton health care plan.
To Mr. Judis, all public improvements are as simple as having the will to see them through. Setting aside policy difficulties and genuine political disagreement, he attributes all political decisions to either public spirit (when he approves) or selfishness (when he does not). Mr. Judis attributes to his opponents the most ulterior of motives he explicitly names C. Boyden Gray and Grover Norquist as paid shills of the business community while praising those with whom he agrees as "disinterested" or public-minded.
Mr. Judis' willingness to reduce every political issue to a competition between the two accentuates a surprising and fatal naivet. To be sure, there are good people and bad people in politics, but to understand any one side as essentially evil (or essentially good) belies an immature understanding of the way Washington and the world work.
At present, America is prospering. Its citizens are more educated, wealthier, and freer than those in any other country in history. To thank for this, they have themselves, who, through experimentation and hard work, built an economy that has grown into the most powerful the world has ever seen. And they have our nation's Founding Fathers, who anticipated the factions that Mr. Judis decries and designed a government of checks and balances to block anyone from gaining too much control. (It is telling that, in a book dedicated to the discussion of special interests and factions, Mr. Judis does not so much as mention James Madison's "Federalist Paper No. 10," the most famous consideration of such issues.)
In measuring the health of American democracy, Mr. Judis weighs the number of people who voted, the level of political discourse, and the success of a certain set of progressive ideas. But never once does he consult the prosperity or comfort of the American citizenry. The book has a number of flaws, but this is its greatest.

Jake Phillips is a writer in Washington and an education policy analyst at Empower America.

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