Democracy Wins

With attention worldwide focused on the U.S. Presidential election, it is appropriate for those who trade with the United States to want to understand the nature of the political battle going on inside the country.

I don’t mean so much the technicalities of election law or the Electoral College. As I write this, the Presidential election is undecided, seemingly coming down to a handful of votes in Florida.

Although some might think that the United States, the mighty bulwark of continental scale and stable democracy, is unraveling into chaos. I don’t think that is true or a real cause for concern.

If the price of liberty is eternal vigilance, then the enemy of democracy is a feeling that one doesn’t count. To every once in a while have an election so close is tremendously nourishing for a democracy because for generations to come, citizens will bounce children up on their collective knees and remind them of that great election of 2000 when the President of the whole country was decided by fewer people than attend a large wedding.

That is a tremendously empowering message because it tells people not only does their own vote matter, but also taking the time to become knowledgeable and respected can pay off because those within an individual’s circle of influence are sufficient in number to make a difference. In other words, it is not just television commercials that matter.

So when the dust clears and the battle is over, the closeness of the contest will make this American democracy all the stronger.

The world also need not fear a weakened government from whomever eventually wins the Presidency. In the U.S. system, the President is the President with all the power that office holds – and it doesn’t matter if he won by one vote, or one hundred million if he won the popular vote or just the Electoral College. In this sense, the U.S. system is very different than parliamentary democracies where a coalition and the fact that a “no confidence” vote can dissolve the government at any time.

If you watched television the night of the U.S. election, you saw red boxes, representing the states captured by Governor Bush gradually filling up a massive L-shaped arc going from the agricultural high plains and sparsely populated mountain states of the West and Midwest and sweeping dramatically across the deep South to the sea. You would have seen blue boxes, representing the states won by Vice President Gore clustered around the cosmopolitan cities of the northeast, the urbanized upper Midwest and the avant-guarde states hugging the Pacific Ocean.

In a sense, those bands of blue and red were a parable. They told in broad strokes across the land the battle that rages in every community across the nation. Indeed I think a battle that many people face within themselves.

Those swaths of red on the map represent the portions of the country that are most conservative. Not so much because they want tax cuts or school vouchers, but because they are the portions of the country most troubled by a perceived moral decline.

In the long run, this battle for the soul of America is crucial, because trade crucially depends on someone being strong enough to keep troublemakers at bay. Once it was Pax Britannica that filled this role. Now it is the United States of America.

If you want a trade to expand, the surest way to see that goal achieved is to see the United States with the requisite strength to keep the peace.

Although that strength may have a public face in the form of aircraft carriers and cruise missiles, that kind of strength relies crucially on a supportive public. A public accustomed to and comfortable with practicing a kind of forbearance.

Daniel Bell, a brilliant sociologist, wrote an influential book, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, in which the gist of his argument is that successful capitalism depends on habits – prudence, thrift, a willingness to defer gratification – and that the rising prosperity that capitalism engenders is subversive of these very same habits. As such, capitalism produces the very conditions that lead to its downfall.

The United States is an almost unimaginably rich country but is also at a great divide. Much of the prosperity of this land has been built on the foundation of a moral bank account now running dry.

If that bank account can be revived, then the United States will stay strong and prosperous and the whole world will benefit.

But if decadence triumphs, the people will be unwilling to pay the price of liberty. And as there is no other force in the world likely to take over the U.S. role in maintaining a democratic, capitalist world order, we can expect despair and darkness.

Which brings to mind another great book, Edward Gibbons’ The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.