The State of Democracy in America

Monterey County Herald, July 11, 2004
By Leon E. Panetta

In this month of July 2004, it would be well for all of us to pause and assess the state of our democracy.

Surely, we have much to celebrate. Since a small group of patriots signed the Declaration of Independence more than 200 years ago, we have gone from a bickering group of rebelling colonies to the strongest superpower in the world.

Committed to the principle that we are all created equal, America has fought division, slavery, discrimination, civil and social unrest and emerged more unified and committed to the goal of achieving equal opportunity for all.

A rural agrarian economy built on small farms and fur trading now has become a symbol to the world of what free enterprise, technological creativity and entrepreneurship are all about. We have become a vital competitor in an exploding global economy.

And because a nation was built by the dreams, blood and sweat of struggling patriots, pioneers, soldiers and immigrants, families can cherish the hope that despite the challenges they face everyday, their children have a chance to claim a piece of the American Dream.

But the success of the America we celebrate was not something pre-ordained by divine providence as some would allege; it was the result of a long struggle by leaders who wanted to give their children a better life. They had a deep faith in God but an even greater faith in themselves. They knew that nothing would change without their willingness to sacrifice and actively engage in our democracy.

It is here in the long tradition of human devotion to our success as a nation that we today find the troubling signs of leaders failing to live up to the standards set by our predecessors.

Leadership today relies more on the perception of making tough decisions than on the reality. The process of electing leaders is the public relations equivalent of selling soap — it is the image that counts more than the substance. We are caught up in a 30-second sound bite world that glorifies personality and winning instead of hard work and governing.

Alexander Hamilton summed up his conception of a wise leader as someone who would not pander to popular whims but “march at the head of affairs, insomuch that they ought not to wait the event to know what measures to take, but the measures which they have taken ought to produce the event.”

Today, just the opposite is true. Events drive policy. Elected leaders are not willing to make any difficult choices even in the face of crisis. Congress has failed to produce a budget at a time when the nation is facing record deficits. The President has not vetoed one spending bill and the Congress is unwilling to pay for future spending or tax cuts. It has failed to pass any kind of comprehensive energy plan in the face of record gas prices and threatened supplies.

It has failed to act on health-care reform, welfare reform and is likely to fail to extend the ban on assault weapons. The parties are locked in political trench warfare and refuse to engage in any successful effort to resolve the problems of the nation.

The media drive these divisions even deeper. Conservative radio and talk shows which have long enjoyed a monopoly on political attacks are now matched by liberal radio and movies like “Fahrenheit 9/11.” Web sites on both sides of the spectrum feed the anger and bias of their readers every day. When the vice president used a four-letter word to tell off a senator on the floor of the Senate, the press reported the comment but few in the media demanded an apology. We have become immune to the divisions splitting our society but the damage is affecting our very ability to govern. Whoever is elected president will reap the whirlwind of these divisions and find his ability to govern seriously impacted by the deep wounds of political civil war.

The greater damage, however, goes to something much more important to our democracy — the participation of a younger generation of voters in our system of governing. The bitter reality is that the divisions and name-calling have turned off a generation of future leaders of our democracy. In a recent poll of college students conducted by Peter Hart and Associates for the Panetta Institute, the results were disturbing: 65 percent said their vote does not matter and would not produce any real change in society; 80 percent said that politics is not relevant to their life; 90 percent have not volunteered for any political campaign; and 71 percent say they have no interest in a career in government or public life.

At a time when this nation is fighting a war on terrorism, an unstable and deteriorating situation in Iraq and the Middle East, an uncertain economy and federal and state budgets that are cutting education funding, they do not view their participation as an essential ingredient to a better future.

In a recent forum held at the Panetta Institute between student body presidents and elected state representatives, one student leader criticized a state assemblyman for urging greater student involvement if they really wanted to protect funding for higher education: “Why do you place the burden on us for your failure to do what is right for the future of this state… When are you going to be willing to stand up and do what is right regardless of politics or party?”

This exchange is a telling summary of the state of our democracy on July 4, 2004. Those elected to office will not make tough decisions without political cover from their party, constituents or crisis. And voters, particularly young ones, feel increasingly isolated from a process that responds more to money, special interests and political survival than leadership.

But the great lesson of America is that none of this need be cause for despair or hopelessness. The greatest hope for confronting political divisions and disenfranchised voters lies at the core of what has preserved and strengthened our democracy — we the people.

Restoring trust is a responsibility of all of us — parents, teachers, students, reporters and those in politics. There can be no leadership without taking risks and leaders will not take risks if the public is unwilling to sacrifice for the future. If the primary motivation of all of us is to get what we can today and to hell with tomorrow, then little will change. But if we in Hamilton’s words “march at the head of affairs” and are willing to sacrifice, we can have a better future.

Together, we can fight our common enemies, pay our debts, invest in our future, vote in every election and recognize our duty to give something back to our country. Then and only then will we be assured that our children will have a chance at a piece of the American Dream and will be able to celebrate an even stronger America come future Julys.

LEON PANETTA, is a former congressman and White House Chief of Staff whose column appears regularly in Commentary. Readers may write to him at the Panetta Institute, 100 Campus Center, Building 86E, CSU Monterey Bay, Seaside, CA 93955.

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