01/09/2012 04:52 EST | Updated 03/09/2012 05:12 EST

Analysis - Neil Macdonald: The Problem With Too Much Democracy

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The United States of America is, perhaps unfortunately for its citizens, the most democratic country in the world.

There's no end to democracy here. Elections take place at the national level every two years, meaning the campaigning never really stops.

What's more, with every election the ballots carry populist initiatives (like the anti-gay marriage Proposition 8 in California in 2008), which are often struck down by judges as unconstitutional.

Outrage then follows: How dare the courts tell the people they are wrong? (As if that's not what the courts are there for in the first place?)

The point is that all this democracy tends to dispense with representative leadership.

Vox populi, vox dei (the voice of the people is the voice of God), I suppose.

But here, that means huge numbers of voters wait eagerly to punish politicians at every opportunity, based on the dimmest possible understanding of their own institutions, their own economy, and their own laws, let alone what goes on in the rest of the world.

Uninformed electorate

The best examples of such bullheadedness are the people who attend rallies demanding an immediate and drastic reduction in government and taxation, with the added warning to "keep your government hands off my Medicare."

"For your information, sir," one elderly woman told me at a rally once in Richmond, Va., "Social Security is not a government program."

I smiled back politely, as reporters are supposed to do, wondering how any serious person in a position of leadership is supposed to deal with that sort of aggressive stupidity.

That's an extreme example, granted, but the electorate here is shot through with muddied versions of reality.

Moreoever, this is America, where individualism is prized for its own sake. So, people don't just act on uninformed positions, they proudly shout them from their bedroom windows.

That in turn is magnified by cable-TV blowhards and ultimately inspires politicians to emphasize their own utter averageness. ("I know absolutely nothing about governing, but I once ran a gas station, so send me to Washington. I know how to deal with all those elites.")

George W. Bush was a graduate of Yale and Harvard, but never talked about that, preferring photo opportunities in jeans with a big belt buckle, clearing brush on his Texas ranch.

Trope a dope

The level of political discourse here amounts to a celebration of mediocrity.

And the most popular trope nowadays is that President Barack Obama has ruined the economy, transforming all succeeding generations into debt slaves for whom there is no hope.

Certainly, Obama has not lived up to his gauzy hope-and-change campaign rhetoric. And it's his fault. Who could?

Quite frankly, I never understood why he pushed expectations so high in the first place. I used to stare in disbelief at all those shining, rapturous faces four years ago, the ones that erupted in joy every time he urged "hope" while the economy sank all around them.

The Republicans recorded every lofty syllable, and now intend to fling them back in Obama's face. Fair enough.

But to say Obama has spent America off a cliff, as so many people here are doing, is nearly as foolish as the government-hands-off-my-Medicare stuff. Let's count the reasons.

Takes two to TARP

First of all, Congress spends, not the president. That's the system.

Then there is the fact that the first big stimulus program was initiated by George W. Bush, with bipartisan approval in Congress, in 2008.

The big bank rescue, TARP, was carried out in the same manner. Even Sarah Palin, running for vice-president at the time, chided Republicans who opposed it.

The second big stimulus was done at President Obama's urging. Republicans in Congress refused to go along, knowing it would pass anyway. In all likelihood, a Republican president and Congress would have done the same had that party kept power in 2008.

Plus, spending automatically kicks up during a recession — unemployment benefits, food stamps, welfare all spike, which is what they are there for.

In fact, the Congressional Budget Office predicted the trillion-dollar-plus deficit that occurred under Obama's first term while George W. Bush was still in office.

Fire them all again

Furthermore, if the U.S. economy is in the ditch, the rest of the world doesn't appear to think so.

Bond markets, the ultimate judges of a country's creditworthiness, are beating up many European nations these days, charging them ruinous interest, but are still buying American debt for what amounts to negative return, once inflation is factored in.

The plain truth (all right, perhaps not so plain) is that the situation in this country is the result of economic cycles, market forces, greedy public and corporate behaviour, and public policies that were executed here by both parties, often with the overwhelming support of the American people.

All that said, the electorate is right to be deeply concerned about economic recovery, and to make it the principal issue of this election.

The question is how to return to growth, and whether that can even happen before the housing market here recovers.

Once growth returns, as it always has (jobless numbers just dropped, and manufacturing is improving), tax revenues will surge and deficits will shrink. The bond markets appear to understand that.

America probably does have to reshape its economy to prosper in a changing world. It might not be a bumper sticker or a cable news headline, but it's vital.

But for that to happen, what's required is a serious public discussion of the sort that seems to take place in Europe from time to time.

Instead, with a general election 11 months away, it's mostly gibbering and finger-pointing and accusing that is going on here, with the enthusiastic participation of demagogue politicians.

Inevitably, it ends with people yelling from one side that Obama is a Kenyan/Muslim/socialist, and people jeering from the other that Republicans are fascists/troglodytes/religious nutcases.

It is the voting public that drives this level of discussion: they elect people to Congress based upon it, then tell pollsters of their disgust and contempt for Congress. Fire them all again, they say. That'll fix things.

If Republicans are disappointed at the calibre of the candidates vying for their party's nomination, they might want to listen to themselves for a moment.

It's hard to argue against democracy. But it's almost as hard not to wonder whether this country couldn't use just a bit less of it.

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