CALM SHUTDOWN SHOWS AMERICA’S CIVIC CHARACTER
Published Date : October 19, 2013
By Derwin Pereira For The Straits Times
T HE prospect of a United States debt default has been described in apocalyptic tones. This is understandable given its catastrophic effects on the global economy. However, it would be wrong to write off America.
For all its faults, American politics, based on democratic habits of the heart, possesses fundamental strengths that are matched by the country boasting the largest and most technologically powerful economy in the world.
Consider the partial government shutdown. Certainly, it was a travesty of the idea of checks and balances enshrined in the United States Constitution. What the world witnessed was not the Republican-dominated House of Representatives trying to check the Democratic White House in the interests of democracy. What it saw was an astonishing display of partisan vendetta by Republicans held hostage by an extremist Tea Party faction intent on stopping health-care legislation that seeks to benefit a large swathe of everyday Americans.
The partial shutdown inflicted untold suffering on American government workers and affected the country’s image as a functional polity based on efficient and effective governance. These are not minor issues and they will not go away with President Barack Obama, whose “Obamacare” package attracted so much Republican vitriol. In the next congressional and presidential elections, American voters will remember who did what.
Yet, beyond the undoubted suffering produced by partisan intransigency, the shutdown did not derail the nation. There were no street riots, no mayhem, no general breakdown of law and order.
More important, there was no military coup. Most important, the seamless continuation of civilian authority in spite of the partial shutdown was considered so natural that nothing was made of it. That there had been no coup was not news.
That is the sign of a mature polity and it is what sets the United States apart from Third World countries, where a chink in the armour of governance could have seen the army ambling into the presidential palace for a leisurely stay.
Indeed, one reason why the US shutdown attracted so much opprobrium is that most countries know that they would not be able to withstand a comparable crisis. It is the hidden solidity of the American political system – based on the degree to which the populace has been socialised into the capacious norms of permissible dissent and protest – which other countries envy in the American way of life.
The closest to the US in this regard is perhaps Italy, whose famously short-lived governments have not prevented the country from maintaining a functioning economy and setting international standards in fashion and design, for example.
The strength of the American civic character is the political equivalent of the cultural stoicism that enables the Japanese to respond to earthquakes and tsunamis without losing their collective equanimity and descending into looting, riots and anarchy. Yet, while the Japanese rightly are feted for this aspect of their national character, Americans are hardly celebrated for the political patience that keeps them firmly on the road of democracy in spite of the occasional but chilling waywardness of some of their political leaders.
The French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville captured the essence of the American political spirit when he wrote: “The Americans, then, have not relied upon the nature of their country to counterpoise those dangers which originate in their Constitution and their political laws. To evils that are common to all democratic nations, they have applied remedies that none but themselves had ever thought of; and, although they were the first to make the experiment, they have succeeded in it.”
“The manners and laws of the Americans are not the only ones which may suit a democratic people, but the Americans have shown that it would be wrong to despair of regulating democracy by the aid of customs and laws,” he added.
As the US emerges from its latest crisis, it is to customs and laws that Americans must turn again to regulate their democracy.
The rest of the world has a vivid interest in their success because this crisis will not be the last.
America is too important to fail. Its imperfections are transparent; they are critiqued openly and widely at home; and the political mechanism is largely self-correcting. Thus, even when foreigners are exasperated by American politicians who wish to hold the system to ransom, they can depend on good sense and compromise prevailing ultimately.
Those who wish to exchange the centrality of an America-led global order for some other one must ponder what the alternative might entail. Opaque political processes and financial systems built around them could hardly commend themselves, when transparency and accountability are key requirements of global governance, especially in the economic realm.
Of course, it would be wise to shift from the kind of near-total reliance that financial markets have on the US keeping its fiscal word. There certainly is a case to be made for a more democratic economic order in which Asia has a greater say at the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
But it would be dangerous to push for “de-Americanisation”. That solution is being proffered by those who want countries to try and relegate the US to the margins because its political problems have profound consequences for its innocent economic partners.
For a fortnight, the US set itself up for scorn and derision because of the shutdown. Others felt the pain as the debt default approached. But as the latest developments prove, a fortnight of failure was repaired, and the US took centre stage again.
Apocalypse has been averted, doomsday scenarios are receding, and America is back in business as usual. That is good news, for it is a country which is indispensable to the rest of the world.
About the Author
Mr. Derwin Pereira heads a Singapore-based political consulting company and also is a member of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University.
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