Today's date:
Winter 2010

Consumer Democracy vs. Good Governance

“Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time,” Churchill famously said in the House of Commons in 1947. The prestige of the great British statesman who held forth when the empire was already on its last legs was such that democratic institutions have scarcely evolved as the world moved on, even after the end of the Cold War.

In a way, Churchill pre-figured Francis Fukuyama, who declared the “end of history” in 1989, postulating that the defeat of communism in the Cold War meant the triumph of Western-style liberal democracy suitable for all of humanity. Despite the growing significance of forms of non-Western modernity that have emerged in East Asia, as Kishore Mahbubani notes, Fukuyama sticks by his anlaysis 20 years later.

Perhaps it is time to take another look at democracy as we know it, not just because of the soft-authoritarian success of a Singapore or a China, but because the West itself has changed.

In much of the West today, especially in the United States, we no longer live in an industrial democracy, no less the agriculture-based landed aristocracy in which most contemporary political systems and their constitutions were originally conceived. We live in a consumer democracy.

Far from the insulated homogeneity and small scale of traditional societies with their earthy virtues of place, or even from the time when capital and labor confronted each other across the barricades or through disciplined mass parties, today we live in a largely middle-class (albeit with growing inequality), densely networked, cosmopolitan society. We enjoy a vast diversity of ethnic backgrounds, religious beliefs and lifestyles that transcend all ideological boundaries. Rightly, we celebrate this manifold richness.

Yet, a deep distortion has emerged. In a consumer democracy, where the feedback signals from politics, the media and the market all steer society toward immediate self-gratification, there is scarce political capacity for long-term thinking, planning and continuity of governance for the future and the common good.

When scarce political capacity and consumer democracy are joined with robust technological prowess, both the societal and generational impacts are amplified and extended well beyond the present moment and local environment. Think climate change, a perfect example of how the retail sanity of mispriced personal choice can add up to wholesale madness.

This new reality requires an enhanced capacity for governance and the design of better institutional filters—more checks and balances—not only against the short-term tyranny of the “one man, one vote” sovereign will, but against the nearest election of the money-driven permanent campaign, the impending retail purchase, the quarterly report and the imperative to “monetize attention” in the media by eclipsing information required for democratic deliberation with entertainment and polarized programming.

Obviously, no system of governance can endure without the consent of the governed. But neither can it endure, as every political sage from Plato to Madison understood, when over-ruled by the popular “appetite” (Plato’s word).

As is often the case, the extreme reveals the essence. Everyone can see that the experience of direct democracy in California, where the popular initiative by-passes the deliberative function of an elected legislature, has proven ruinous. California’s crisis reveals the delusions of a Diet-Coke civilization that wants sweetness without calories, consumption without savings and good governance without taxes or political capacity.

The problem democracy faces in the 21st century is systemic and must be addressed accordingly.

It is worthwhile in this context to aerate our assumptions in the West by examining the best practices of the East, where the rulers retain a greater political capacity for governance. While the entrepreneurial energies of the population have been unleashed through a free market, especially in China, the strong hand of the neo-Confucian state tempers all those liberated interests in the name of social harmony and long-term sustainability.

China’s system is, of course, marred in the opposite way of America’s by the absence of personal liberty and free expression as well as the feeble rule of law and weak accountability of the authorities. All too easily the strong hand can become the harsh fist of repression or the open palm of corruption.

As these two systems, which Niall Ferguson already calls “Chimerica”, interact with each other across the Pacific Basin—the new center of global gravity—their frictions and fusions will yield the opportunity to create something new: a philosophy of governance that balances the individual and the common interest, immediacy and the long-term; a system that mitigates the appetites of consumer democracy without killing the dynamism of self-realization.

If the 20th century was about the competition between freedom and totalitarianism, the 21st century pits good governance against the excesses of consumer democracy.

Nathan Gardels, editor