From South Asia to the heartland of Europe and now even to Wall Street, these protesters share something else: wariness, even contempt, toward traditional politicians and the democratic political process they preside over.
They are taking to the streets, in part, because they have little faith in the ballot box.
"Our parents are grateful because they're voting," said Marta Solanas, 27, referring to older Spaniards' decades spent under the Franco dictatorship. "We're the first generation to say that voting is worthless."
The same theme is increasingly heard here in America--not from street protesters but from traditional politicians, especially Democrats, and their supporters in the liberal elite media.
"I think we ought to suspend, perhaps, elections for Congress for two years and just tell them we won't hold it against them, whatever decisions they make, to just let them help this country recover. I really hope that someone can agree with me on that," North Carolina's Gov. Beverly Perdue said yesterday. "You want people who don't worry about the next election."
This was reported by the website of the Charlotte News & Observer under the headline "Perdue Jokes About Suspending Congressional Elections for Two Years," but according to the story, there was no reason to think she was kidding: "It's unclear whether Perdue, a Democrat, is serious--but her tone was level and she asked others to support her on the idea."
Anyway, where is the humor here? Perdue's remark is reminiscent of Bertolt Brecht's poem "Die Lösung" ("The Solution"):
After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers' Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?
This is a mordant joke at the expense of East Germany's totalitarian regime, which, with Soviet help, had crushed an uprising in 1953. But America's circumstances in 2011 are in no way analogous to those of the Captive Nations during the Cold War. It's true that what Perdue said cannot really be taken seriously, since there is no prospect of suspending elections. But if it is humor, it is at the expense of voters, not politicians. And it seems to us it would more accurately be described as a wish than a joke.
The wish for less democracy is increasingly heard on the liberal left these days. Peter Orszag, in a much-discussed new essay for The New Republic, explains "why we need less democracy," as the subheadline puts it:
To solve the serious problems facing our country, we need to minimize the harm from legislative inertia by relying more on automatic policies and depoliticized commissions for certain policy decisions. In other words, radical as it sounds, we need to counter the gridlock of our political institutions by making them a bit less democratic. . . .
Perhaps the most dramatic example of this idea is the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB), created as part of the recent health care reform legislation. The IPAB will be an independent panel of medical experts tasked with devising changes to Medicare's payment system. In each year that Medicare's per capita costs exceed a certain threshold, the IPAB is responsible for making proposals to reduce projected cost growth. The proposals take effect automatically unless Congress specifically passes legislation blocking them and the president signs that legislation.
IPAB, colloquially known as "death panels," is the perfect synecdoche for the authoritarian attitude reflected in Gov. Perdue's musings. It was part of a law enacted in the face of overwhelming popular opposition. It gives "experts," selected by politicians but insulated from democratic accountability, the power of life and death. Barack Obama and Peter Orszag know what's good for you, and they'll give it to you if it kills you--literally.
Another fan of government by experts, albeit one who is more silly than sanguinary, is Thomas Friedman, the worst writer in the English language. Friedman, who often expresses admiration for the "enlightened" rulers of Red China, offers this breezy advice:
We know what to do--a Grand Bargain: short-term stimulus to ease us through this deleveraging process, debt restructuring in the housing market and long-term budget-cutting to put our fiscal house in order. . . .
If the president really wants to lead from the front, he should summon the Democratic and Republican leadership, along with all 12 members of the House-Senate deficit "supercommittee," to join him at Camp David and tell the world that they are not coming back without a Grand Bargain--one that offers some short-term jobs stimulus, a credible long-term debt reduction plan with entitlement cuts and tax reform that increases revenues.
Putting aside the merits of his simple-minded policy proposal, Friedman's idea is about as realistic as Perdue's. If the president issued such a summons, we suspect all the Republicans and not a few of the Democrats would balk, if not laugh in his face. Even Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker scoffs at Friedman: "For Obama, a Grand Bargain, which is to say a Grand Compromise, is not currently an option."
Yet Hetzberg takes the left's authoritarianism a step further toward totalitarianism. He characterizes the two parties as "a side that is insane and unwilling to compromise" (Republicans) and "a side that is sane and willing to compromise" (Democrats). The Soviets and their puppets in places like East Germany couldn't actually "dissolve the people and elect another," as Brecht put it. But like Hertzberg, they could and did label their opponents insane.
Fortunately, in America this is only speech. Hertzberg can call you insane, but he can't commit you to a mental institution. As he acknowledges, he can't even stop you from voting.
Why are Democrats suddenly so undemocratic? Probably because they fear that this observation, from Nile Gardiner in a blog post for London's Daily Telegraph, will turn out to be accurate:
The United States is undergoing one of the biggest political revolutions in its post-war history, and perhaps the most important since Ronald Reagan, with an emphatic rejection of the idea that government knows best when it comes to handling key domestic issues, especially relating to the economy. . . .
Barack Obama could well end up being the last big government president of the United States, a nation that simply cannot afford the lavish excesses of an imperious presidency that drains the pay-checks of hard-working Americans with impunity and reckless abandon. The historic loss of faith in the federal government under Obama has combined with growing support across America for a return to the limited government ideals of the Founding Fathers.
From your keyboard to God's browser, Mr. Gardiner. But of course what comes after Obama will depend on who comes after Obama. and all of this raises a question about Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney.
The technocratic approach to government Orszag describes--in which panels of experts make decisions insulated from democratic politics--has been central to progressivism in its various iterations for about a century. It has a parallel in the business world in the culture of management consulting. That is the culture that produced Mitt Romney.
But the purpose of a business is to make a profit. Sometimes the best way to do this, especially when the enterprise is faltering and needs to be turned around, is to concentrate power in the hands of experts. The purpose of the government, by contrast, is to preserve freedom.
Thus in the political realm, one should always be suspicious of concentrations of power. Is Romney?