Democratic Hysteria

BERKELEY – In the political impasses that recently paralyzed the world’s two largest democracies, India and the United States, both countries’ usually clear-sighted leaders, to paraphrase William Butler Yeats, lacked all conviction, while the misguided and the shallow were full of passionate intensity. Indeed, that passion shows little sign of waning.

In the US, the economically illiterate, seeing misery all around from lost jobs, foreclosed homes, and the ever more apparent decline in America’s international status, are distilling their frenzy from obsolete advocates of fiscal rectitude, while clutching their Bibles and espousing a juvenile understanding of the US constitution. But their efforts are only digging a bigger hole for the US economy, making recovery much more difficult. Even their tax-averse sponsors, while appreciative of the rabble’s efforts to protect their wealth, are now fearful of the impact of these wayward ideas on the investment climate and equity prices.

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President Barack Obama, elected with a great deal of goodwill and hope in 2008, is now caught like a deer in the headlights. He knows that what the economy needs in the short run is different from what needs to be done to manage public debt in the long run, but he is unable to provide decisive leadership. His misguided efforts at compromise only fuel his opponents’ frenzy.

In India, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who once enjoyed a strong reputation for integrity and intelligence, has been similarly paralyzed, acting erratically in the face of an equally demagogic populist movement – the anti-graft crusade led by a fasting activist, Anna Hazare – which just ended in a frantic and uneasy compromise. Hazare, egged on by a flag-waving and indignant urban middle class and sensation-seeking media, tries mightily to claim Mahatma Gandhi’s mantle; he is good at mimicking Gandhi’s piety, but lacks his root wisdom.

Low-level corruption (the police, courts, and government clerks) has always been widespread in India. The type of corruption that has increased in recent years is partly a consequence of rapid economic growth. Public resources, like land, minerals, and hydrocarbons, and the telecommunications spectrum, have shot up in value, and in the scramble to control them, businessmen seek shortcuts.

Another reason for rising corruption is the soaring expense of elections, with politicians raising money from business as part of a quid pro quo. Both India and the US have little public financing of elections, and large business donations that are legal in the US are often illegal (and hence given underhandedly) in India.

But, instead of addressing the structural causes of rising corruption, India’s anti-graft movement bemoans a supposed weakening of ethical values and demands additional agencies with draconian powers to monitor and punish. The urban middle classes, impatient with the slow processes of democracy, latch on to holy men and their magic potions. Just as in the US, public rage is somehow directed away from the rich bribe-givers and onto venal politicians.

In both countries, the long-run implications of such angry populist movements for the health of democratic institutions need to be pondered. This is particularly true for India, where elections are vigorous and common people participate in them more enthusiastically than in the US, but other democratic institutions remain weak and sometimes dysfunctional, and the judiciary is too slow and occasionally corrupt.

To loud cheers from the crowds, the populists damn elected politicians as thieves and looters, but in the process disparage the institutions and processes of representative government. In the not-too-distant past, widespread denigration of this sort in Africa, Latin America, and other parts of South Asia often made it easier for populist authoritarianism to take hold.

Indeed, the widely heard slogan “Anna is India, India is Anna” reminds some of the dark days of Indira Gandhi’s emergency rule in 1975-1977, when her followers raised the slogan of “Indira is India”. But the slogan-mongers overlook India’s extreme diversity. Many members of ethnic minorities, including the country’s 150 million Muslims, openly oppose the Hazare movement.

One Dalit (the lowest level of India’s old caste system) leader expressed his fear that Anna’s success might inspire some majoritarian leader to rouse an even larger movement to rescind the protective rights and affirmative-action policies that have brought the lower castes some dignity. And some NGO leaders object that their own, very different anti-corruption agenda is being pre-empted by Hazare’s demands.

In a populous country, it is not difficult to attract a large crowd. The electronic media are particularly attracted to colorful crowds waving flags and espousing nationalist causes. As one journalist pointed out, when 400,000 people (far more than Hazare’s followers in Delhi) marched in Kolkata in May 1998 to protest against the government’s nuclear tests, the media barely noticed.

Even when movements have near-universal support (which is not the case with the recent political movements in the US or India), there is a fundamental tension between democracy’s procedural and participatory aspects. Apart from electoral reform, outlets for political participation and expression of public grievances must be balanced by institutions and procedures that are partly insulated from the rough-and-tumble of politics.

Of course, representative government does sometimes become unresponsive, particularly between elections, but direct democracy is not the solution. The US state of California, which has become increasingly dysfunctional since a 1978 popular referendum capped property taxes, can attest to that. Nor is it an answer to demand hasty enactment of legislation in the face of a threat to cause public disorder by starving oneself to death, as Anna Hazare has done.

Most citizens in the world’s two largest democracies understand that democracy does not offer magic solutions. One of the most lamentable developments of our time is that so many are now prepared to try unhealthy palliatives and short cuts.