Messy but not broken

Posted: Jan 23, 2006 12:05 AM

It is not a pretty season in our politics. Both our major parties seem to be busy disqualifying themselves. The Republicans are desperately trying to avoid getting caught up in the scandal of the disgraced and disgustingly greedy lobbyist Jack Abramoff (his clients contributed to Democrats as well as Republicans, they are quick to assert). The Democrats are fortifying their reputation for being unwilling to defend their country from its violent enemies, by attacking George W. Bush for ordering National Security Agency electronic surveillance of calls from al-Qaida suspects and by filibustering reauthorization of the Patriot Act.

The Republicans -- having succeeded in delivering on some of Bush's promises (on taxes and education) and having flinched at others (Social Security) -- are vulnerable to the charge that they have run out of ideas. The Democrats, split on the war on terrorism between the Liebermanites who want to win and the Murthians who want to quit, are vulnerable to the charge that, since Bill Clinton decamped to Chappaqua, they have no ideas at all.

Is our republican democracy, then, entirely squalid? Not really -- or not so it should bother us, says Judge Richard Posner of the Seventh Circuit, the most prolific federal judge, who seems to write almost as many books as he does judicial opinions.

In his 2005 book "Law, Pragmatism and Democracy," Posner nominates as the Virgil to guide us through our "Inferno" and "Purgatorio" the Austrian-born economist Joseph Schumpeter. Schumpeter -- hardly a sympathetic figure -- was an elitist who believed the achievements of capitalism were threatened by the greed and ignorance of the masses. But he supported popular electoral democracy -- a controversial stand in the Mitteleuropa of the 1920s -- if only to give the masses a sense that they were in control. "Democracy," as Posner describes Schumpeter's view, "is conceived of as a method by which members of a self-interested political elite compete for the votes of a basically ignorant and apathetic, as well as determinedly self-interested, electorate."

Posner revives Schumpeter's theory of politics because he is annoyed that "without it, there are no wholehearted academic defenders of the most successful political system since the Roman Empire!" He brings to mind Winston Churchill's quip that democracy is the worst system of government, except all the others that have been tried over the years.

"American democracy," writes Posner, "enables the adult population, at very little cost in time, money or distraction from private pursuits commercial or otherwise, to punish at least the flagrant mistakes and misfeasances of officialdom, to assure an orderly succession of at least minimally competent officials, to generate feedback to the officials concerning the consequences of their policies, to prevent officials from (or punish them for) entirely ignoring the interests of the governed, and to prevent serious misalignments between government action and public opinion."

All of which is a little too astringent to me. I prefer the uplift of Jefferson and Lincoln, the Roosevelts and Ronald Reagan (who appointed Posner to the bench). I note that voter turnout rose 16 percent from 2000 to 2004 and Bush's popular vote rose 23 percent: Our polarized politics has increased participation, though not in the way most of the academy and mainstream media would prefer.

But Schumpeter's view has something to say for it. The Republicans may be facing lobbying scandals -- but lobbying is protected by the First Amendment (the Constitution gives us the right to "petition the government for a redress of grievances"), and a government that channels vast sums of money will always be so petitioned. The Democrats may be grievously bifurcated between those who want to see America win and those with what Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington calls a "transnational" allegiance, but the Democratic Party through its long existence has often been split.

A city on a hill is, after all, a city -- and cities are messy places. As are suburbs and farmlands. Americans are busy striving and risking their lives and making the world better, as they have for 60-plus years. There have been few if any pretty seasons in our politics over those years: Go back, and try to find them. Yet the result, pace Posner, is better than what Rome achieved. We'll get through this season, too.