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.

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.