Saturday, August 18, 2012

What’s Wrong with Democracy?

Plenty, but no one’s come up with anything better except an improvement in the integrity of both a nation’s people and its leader. And that, in fact, is my subject today.

Yogis talk in terms of duality: the constant ebb and flow and fluctuation between polar opposites. We humans are so accustomed to this that we don’t tend to give it much thought: daytime, nighttime, activity, rest, work, relaxation, sickness, health, war and peace, and on and on. I doubt very few humans step back from this unceasing play to wonder if “There’s something fishy going on here?” Most hope and work for the best and try to get over the worst, but rarely consider that perhaps, in the long run, both good and bad add up to a big, fat ZERO.

What’s this have to do with democracy? Well, nothing, and, well, everything? J My spiritual teacher and friend, Swami Kriyananda (founder of Ananda and by now well known direct disciple of Paramhansa Yogananda, author if Autobiography of a Yogi), has pointed out that no government is necessarily better than the people who run it and the people are governed by it.

Consider (and I’m no historian or constitutional expert) that the original structure of the 13 colonies of America was much more a republic: only certain people could vote and senators were elected by state legislatures. If recall correctly, the electoral college had far more influence and a role than it does today.

“We the people” constituted a great fewer people (in terms of race, gender, and social status) than we consider it to be today in 2012.  In the early decades of democracy many aristocrats (and others) could not believe that the common man could be trusted to have an intelligent and ideal-guided say in his government.

But let us, as Americans, step back and consider some of the glaring shortcomings of our political system:
1.       How many of our voting citizens vote intelligently and with due consideration of all sides of complex issues? How many vote merely upon superficial characteristics of looks, mannerisms, professed religion, race, gender, or party affiliation? How many voters participate as involved citizens at any level (local or national)? How many citizens are blatantly prejudiced in their views? How many of us, checking the boxes on our ballots, have no idea whether so-and-so is the right person?  The biggest fallacy we possess in our country’s self-image is also our greatest strength: a belief in the equality of all people (despite common sense!). In extending the franchise to all, we have simultaneously debased its value.

2.       Democracy turns the majority into the “rule.” Prejudicial treatment of minorities is a plague that roams the earth and haunts democracy at its roots. Protections for minorities are the obvious solution but those protections are ultimately rooted only in the conscience of the majority, as the history of the United States and evolution of civil rights (both laws and attitudes) are a glaring testimony. Just because the majority thinks one way doesn’t make it true, right, moral, or wise. Truth is not something that gets elected. I would go so far as to say most people are wrong (or biased) most of the time, especially where their self-interest is involved.

3.       Leadership requires vision and vision requires both courage and charisma. Since a politician in a democracy must pander to the whims of the voting citizenry, great leaders are rare because the very political process requires one to bow and scrape to moneyed and voting interests. Such interests are, almost by definition, short-sighted, far from “enlightened”, what to mention courageous and self-sacrificing for the greater good of all.

4.       Thus the very concept of “representation” tends to push the expectations towards mutual self-interest and, in the extreme, what is commonly referred to as “pork barrel.” (“You vote for me and I will bring you favors.”) Not wanting to disappoint the expectant rabble, a politician must resort to lies or half-truths, postponing the day of fiscal or other reckoning off past at least the next election, if not the next generation.

5.       Compromise is necessary even between intelligent and high minded individuals, what to mention the diverse plurality of representatives of America’s very wide spectrum of people and interests. The art of compromise suggests a view to long-term goals and an innate respect for others. But the long-term view inherent in maturity and wisdom is itself compromised by the clanging dinner bell of re-election.

6.       Compromise fails, however, when faced with national or international crises, not all of which involve war. Economic crises, trade relations affecting thousands or millions of jobs, global warming, pandemics, nuclear proliferation and any number of countless issues may and do arise that require vision and decisiveness  from those in leadership positions. The paralysis of party politics, always with eye to the popular vote, emasculates the integrity and courage of many a leader and representative. Thus it is that the polarization in today’s politics is oft decried but rarely challenged by elected officials. The result is paralysis in key challenges facing our nation. The ultimate result of making no real decision is that, in time, the decision will be made by other nations, other interests, or objective circumstances — with potentially undesirable results.

7.       But if one is tempted to look with wistful eye upon a benign dictatorship, one doesn’t have to look very far to discover that there aren’t any. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Fearful citizens may cry out for decisive action to quell their fears but in so doing they will unquestionably lose their freedom. The result may even be, either way, rebellion or hardship, and more likely, both.

8.       Thus our so-called democracy vacillates between pandering to self-interest and selling our freedoms in return for security. What we clearly lack in our country today is a practical and personal idealism.

So, where am I going? Is this just a carping session? Well, I mean, is there more to it than that?

Yes, of course. The point is that it is not so much the system of government that determines its effectiveness but the consciousness of the society itself, overall. Now, we yogis would add to the “karma” of the nation, as well. For example, America was founded in a very specific way with a very specific intention and conscious affirmation of freedom for all. However imperfect it was then and has been ever since, the impact of those conscious intentions (courageously expressed against great odds) has been the impetus (read: the “karma”) that has influenced and affected the relative degree of success of this great experiment in democracy. The founders of this country balanced recognition of allegiance to God and to truth with an impersonal and nonsectarian view of that truth. How far we have come from such a bold, expansive, and inclusive faith!
What then are the qualities of leaders and citizens that, in terms of today’s culture, would seem necessary to produce a government and a society that yields the greatest good for the greatest number?

John F. Kennedy said it well and now most famously when he challenged Americans to “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Nothing worthwhile and enduring in human lives and history is accomplished without sacrifice and cooperation with others of like mind. Therefore we need to encourage and support leaders who do not flinch from reminding us of this basic truth in life. This means not flinching from difficult choices and challenging facts and circumstances. It means outlining a plan of action that, while subject to the compromise and consensus process inherent in our system of government, nonetheless reveals foresight, courage, and vision. No such plan will fail to challenge entrenched interests or beliefs. The corollary is a citizenry that understands that entitlements, benefits, and so called “pork” must be earned by self-effort and not dispensed like the proverbial free-lunch.

More attention must be given to meritocracy rather than entitlement; to helping others help themselves rather than doling out charity. Charity cannot be legislated. It is gift of free-will from the heart and is best left to those individuals and organizations better suited to expressing and channeling and inspiring such acts. Rather than robbing one set of people (thereby generating only resentment and avoidance, if not evasion) to support another set (who may be tempted, or forced, to accept such charity as a way of life and their own degraded self-definition) let’s inspire and encourage one another (through appropriate tax and social incentives) to be compassionate and to do that which is right to do.

Let specific industries take the lead to form associations for self-regulation. Such oversight must, of course, include government, consumers and labor interests and must be subject to the overall review of legislative and executive bodies. Let us bring decision making from the ivory tower of Washington D.C. down to the level where it is implemented. There can be broad over-arching goals and policies crafted at the national level but their implementation should work with the creativity and dedication of those responsible for executing those policies.

The law of duality requires a balancing of interests, especially between national and local governmental bodies. Some issues in society (health care, energy, transportation, safety, individual rights) demand national policies, but even these can be broad and directional. There application in local settings will naturally vary and will require the creative and positive participation of state and local government, business, non-profit, and individuals.

One of the great strengths and curses of American democracy is the two-party system. Talk about the law of duality, eh? The two parties have a stranglehold on American politics and make a mockery of one-man, one-vote choices.  One should be able to vote on the basis of merit not party. I think some states allow this, but I am not certain how this works, given that none of the party system is incorporated into the Constitution.
What is the meaning of a president and party that wins by a mere 1% or less of the vote? It can’t mean much. If winner takes all we can have government policies that nearly half of the country doesn’t support while the other choice, a coalition government, including a divided Congress, could mean nothing worthwhile is accomplished.

In the end, I cannot help but feel that if the country as a whole is not clear on its direction, it is better to proceed slowly than to push citizens beyond what they can accept. What this means is that external circumstances (economic, e.g.) or nations may force our hand. But, then, that’s the choice citizens have effectively made based on either their indecision or lack of inspired or practical options offered by those seeking public office.

In the case of sharply polarized issues such as, in American life today, gay marriage or abortion, it is similarly incumbent upon a society to move slowly and incrementally, not satisfying anyone, unfortunately, but avoiding unnecessary rancor at least to the extent possible. It takes time for cultures to take on new attitudes. Usually at least a generation or two is needed. Wise leadership leads but doesn’t drive, sometimes even going a step or two backwards, before advancing.

So we have this duality between compromise, which includes incremental change, and decisiveness, which includes a vision for new and fresh directions. “Patience,” it has been well said, “is the quickest route to success.” Democracy is messy and in many ways inefficient. But the key to success in national life is maturity in personal life.

Training in responsible citizenship and leadership should become universal, applied to everyone in general and to elected and public officials specifically. Cooperation should replace ruthless competition as the model in government and business alike. A business can emphasize quality or service, and a politician can emphasize creative solutions. Isn’t this preferable than wasting resources on beating one’s opponent down?

Every public servant should be schooled in the art and science of good government and personal, ethical behavior. The consequences of failure, too, should be clear and transparent. I believe the same should be true, to some degree, to responsible positions in business. Both are a privilege and a responsibility. There should be an element of self-sacrifice for a greater good. Excessive compensation or personal accumulation is anathema to the essence of effective leadership, in any field.

For, you see, it is consciousness that ultimately determines the course and fate of nations and individuals. A lousy political system, yes even a dictatorship, compromised of high-minded, honest, serviceful people will bring greater happiness and prosperity to a nation than a “pure” democracy comprised of selfish, self-seeking voters and elected officials.

Our system is a good as it gets, so far as we can know at this time in history. But a return to universal ideals must be re-affirmed and practically applied.

Blessings to you,
Nayaswami Hriman