Commentary Magazine


American Democracy

To the Editor:

I share Joshua Muravchik’s perception that world history is at a crossroads [“Losing the Peace,” July], but question the relative importance of foreign aid in determining which way it will go. Perhaps democracy abroad would be better served in the long run if we turned inward to tackle the grave problems of American democracy, which are the real, ultimate threat to global democratization.

From the beginning, the entire world march to democracy was based on the perception that, in the words of James Baker, “freedom works” whereas authoritarianism does not. Foreigners everywhere look upon our prosperity as confirmation of this. But our “prosperity” is illusory and our democracy has not been working well. Mr. Muravchik’s assertion that our standard of living is two-and-a-half times what it was in 1948 ignores the vast accumulation of debt at all levels. How prosperous would the U.S. be if the $4-trillion national debt had to be paid now, in addition to private debt?

Democracy, the supposed victor in today’s world, has proven chronically incapable of imposing the sacrifices essential to solving our problems. Mr. Muravchik asks if we should go on borrowing or reduce the deficit by raising taxes or cutting spending. To continue borrowing at current rates is the fast track to economic ruin, yet politicians in our democracy generally cannot win elections by raising taxes or cutting popular spending programs. So we continue to career toward bankruptcy. . . .

The columnist Charles Krauthammer recently found it peculiar that America’s mood was so glum despite the collapse of Communism. Why aren’t Americans dancing in the streets now that a great totalitarian rival has fallen? Perhaps it is because America’s own problems are so potentially catastrophic. . . . Krauthammer notes that our deficits imperil our superpower status. I agree; looming bankruptcy threatens vastly to diminish American power. . . . American democracy can hardly be a permanent model for the world if it cannot be made to work in the U.S. itself.

. . . The specter of U.S. economic collapse is probably a graver threat to Russian democratization than any internal factor. It seems that no matter how severe the economic plight, no matter how grave the chaos in neighboring republics, the Russian people steadfastly reject a return to dictatorship. They stoically endure the hardships of a transition because they feel American-style democracy and capitalism are the key to prosperity. As long as the Russian people continue to believe in democracy, it is hard to see how a new coup will succeed, particularly without the old state-security apparatus. But the chronic failings of American democracy may undermine that belief if they are not corrected soon.

Tim Donovan
Manchester, Connecticut

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Joshua Muravchik writes:

I agree with many of the points made by Tim Donovan, but I believe he presents them in a way that is out of proportion. His sanguine view of the future of Russian democracy comports oddly with his extreme anxiety about American democracy. Does the record of the past count for nothing? The American people’s unwillingness to reconcile the level of benefits they demand from government with the amount of revenue they are willing to fork over has become a shameful episode in our history. But I am confident that once the American people see how harmful this has become, they will accept the burdens of rectifying it.

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