Losing Patience with Democracy?

For the past twenty years or so, Americans have been treated to Congress’s favorite game: debt ceiling brinksmanship. The game requires two teams: one Republican, one Democrat. The rules of the game are fairly simple. One side threatens to throw the entire United States government into insolvency by allowing our Federal Reserve and Department of Treasury to default on the payment of interest (aka “debt service”) on government bonds. Results of such a default would be catastrophic and would include, among other things, a ripple effect across the entire economy, much of which considers U. S. government bonds as the one secure foundation underpinning all other financial securities. Merchants around the world would lose confidence in all U. S. financial instruments, including the dollar. Banks would fail. Stock markets would crash or even close their doors.

That’s why earlier this week, the most sensible members of Congress voted quickly to extend the debt ceiling question until early December, to give cooler heads a chance to continue their negotiations. Spirited Reasoners can expect, however, that the second half of the game will begin again in earnest, starting as early as this week and continuing into at least mid-November.

Most Americans have grown sick of the game; some to the point of losing patience with our democratic system altogether. Donald Trump’s candidacy in 2016 was supported, in part, by voters who were sick and tired of what they saw as legislators acting like children playing with fire. “Drain the Swamp” became one of his favorite refrains. Unfortunately, a number of his followers—as evidenced by the mob that attacked the Capitol on January 6—interpreted that phrase to mean “Americans would be better off without a legislative branch.”

We need to remember, though, that the workings of even the finest democratic systems have always been messy. There is an old saying attributed to Otto Von Bismarck in the late 19th Century to the effect that “if you like laws and sausages you should not watch either one being made.” His point was that the legislative process can be extremely messy.

There are really only two viable options for Americans in the year 2021: (1) give up on democracy and hand over power to a dictatorship; or (2) accept the fact that our democratic processes are going to be hard to watch, like the making of sausage.

Will our insistence on representative democracy mean that we must periodically witness corruption, inefficiency, and the type of brinksmanship that puts our entire economy at risk? Spirited Reasoners know that the answer may be yes. They also know that the alternative—i.e., rule by a monarch or other dictator—would be worse.

As Winston Churchill so aptly put it: “Democracy is the worst form of government—except for all the others that have been tried.”