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Frustration with democracy in the US

In an essay for spiked, Frank Furedi argues that the oligarchs of the European Union have turned decisively against democracy, in favor of elevating technocrats to positions of power in order to impose punitive austerity measures that do not have the backing of the electorate. Reading Furedi's article, I was struck by how there are similar trends at work in the US, albeit in a different form.

Many commentators in the US, coming from different perspectives, have expressed frustration and impatience with the workings of government, mainly with regard to the issue of growing federal government budget deficits and debt accumulation. Such reactions were prominent in the summer, as congress fought down to the wire over the raising of the debt ceiling. They emerged again last week, as the so-called "supercommittee" of Senate and House members - which was set up as a last-minute compromise from the summer's negotiations - failed to reach a deal to reduce the deficit.

Political scientist and leading intellectual Francis Fukuyama recently wrote that the failure of the supercommittee has roots that "go to the very nature of the political system". Fukuyama says that America is a "vetocracy", whereby the US system of checks and balances have "metastasized" to the point where partisan politicians can stymie legislation and delay executive branch appointments. In its place he would like to see a "democratic dictatorship", as the British Westminster system is sometimes called, that could pass laws more rapidly.

It is interesting that Fukuyama explicitly calls for reforms that replace the mass of political representatives with technocrats:

Budgets would be formulated, as in the case of the failed supercommittee, by a much smaller group of legislators. Unlike today’s strongly partisan committee, it would have heavy technocratic input from a non-partisan agency like the Congressional Budget Office that would be insulated from the interest group pressures that afflict the sitting legislators. A completed budget would be put before Congress in a single, unamendable up-or-down vote.

When Fukuyama talks about the CBO being "insulated" from "interest group pressures", he sounds very much like European commentators that want to insulate the workings of government from the populace so they can get on with imposing austerity.

Another example of this trend in America is provided in a report by Gillian Tett in today's Financial Times. Tett writes about how Erskine Bowles - an American political figure who headed a bipartisan "blue-ribbon" panel on the deficit last year - is trying to sign up chief executive officers to join a new "CEO fiscal reform council" that would (somehow) put pressure on Washington to reduce its debt:

His idea is that by bringing business leaders into the debate, this could break Washington’s fiscal gridlock, and reduce the risk of America heading into “the most predictable financial crisis in history”, as he says; where the "supercommittee" of politicians failed, in other words, CEOs might (possibly) succeed in forcing action. Or so the hope goes.

The fiscal reform panel Erskine co-led last year was itself borne out of an attempt to override the normal congressional channels. But a "CEO council" would go much further towards introducing a technocratic component. Tett says that Bowles' latest idea "marks a howl of frustration against traditional politics", and she adds, "Everywhere from the streets to the CEO suites there is a sense that the normal democratic processes are falling short and a hunt for something - anything - else."

But, as Furedi notes, the questioning of democracy of late is not a positive development. "The claim that governments do not work," he writes, "is another way of syaing that democratic representation within the context of a nation state does not work. The alternative that is proposed is invariably to have less democracy, not more." 

And that will makes things worse.

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