I suppose the reason I am raising two cheers for the new health insurance bill is because I've had a little experience trying to get some kind of change, some improvement, through politics. It is so very hard. On both occasions, I was on the losing side trying to fight from a position of weakness. We tried our best in both efforts and ended up with nothing in one campaign, and slightly more than nothing in the second. The first occasion was an effort to unionize a single store of a large bookstore chain. We won the union election and got creamed in contract negotiations. All the company had to do was sit back and wait us out. They conceded absolutely nothing.
The second occasion was more complicated and uglier. I was involved in a fight over who is supposed to manage the building where I have my studio. That fight lasted many years, involved all kinds of corruption, competing city politicians and developers, then turned into a nasty ethnic brawl, and finally ended in a court case which the artists ultimately lost. After all those years and all that work, we extracted a few tiny little concessions to keep the whole thing from being a total disaster.
The United States is an oligarchy. It's an oligarchy where money rules and makes the law. We have a genuine democratic structure, but it is hollowed out by powerful interests who figured out a long time ago how to game the system to their advantage. As David Rockefeller is alleged to have said, only small businesses don't like government. Big businesses use it to their advantage in everything from government contracts to regulatory legislation to eminent domain.
The remarkable thing about the health insurance bill is that it was negotiated all along from a position of weakness. Yes, the voters liked that idea in 2008, and that's not nothing, but it's not enough. All the real power, the money, the infrastructure, the vested interests, the bureaucratic inertia, was against this bill -- and any reform bill -- all along. The opposition pulled out every parliamentary and demagogic tactic to stop it and to gut it. That anything positive at all got through that sausage mill is amazing.
I remember talking to someone who worked in a minor role in the Clinton White House. He said that Washington DC is about things that need so urgently to be done, with 25 lawyers explaining to you why you can't do anything.
Even where democracies are not so thoroughly corrupted, as is ours, democracy is an ugly, frustrating, and disappointing business. And as everyone from Thucydides to John Adams pointed out, democracies are extremely vulnerable to demagoguery and manipulation. Few things on this planet are more fickle and volatile than public opinion. Demagogues from Creon to Joe McCarthy have always counted on that fact. Let's not forget that the Nazis were legitimately elected in 1932. Jim Crow laws were popular and could have easily survived any popular referendum -- and not just in the South.
Democracy is very rarely about those triumphant moments where what is right and just prevail. More often than not, it is about committees trying to work out agreements that no one likes but everyone can live with between competing interests. Despised and reviled partisanship is a fact of democracy. Frequently, there are 2 or 3 completely different philosophies of life fighting each other for power. Democracy gives those irreconcilable philosophies a place to compete for public opinion, and for power, without having to shoot at each other. Where there is no dissent, no partisanship, then chances are there is no democracy. Tyrants love bipartisanship.
The enduring strength of democracy is the idea that people can influence the the decisions of their communities within a legal framework. They may be disappointed at the outcome of elections, but they shouldn't have to worry about being arrested in the middle of the following night. Democracies make the best use of human beings as they are with all their competing desires and ambitions, their clashing personalities, their creativity and innovation, their greed and cowardice, their moments of shining courage and compassion, their tendency to pick their noses and scratch their butts. There is no such thing as "Democratic Man" like there was "Socialist Man," "Capitalist Man." or any other species of "New Man" from the past century. There are no "untried ideals." They've all been tried.
All those noble efforts to clean up human nature end up like this:
If virtue be the spring of a popular government in times of peace, the spring of that government during a revolution is virtue combined with terror: virtue, without which terror is destructive; terror, without which virtue is impotent. Terror is only justice prompt, severe and inflexible; it is then an emanation of virtue; it is less a distinct principle than a natural consequence of the general principle of democracy, applied to the most pressing wants of the country. ... The government in a revolution is the despotism of liberty against tyranny. Is force only intended to protect crime? Is not the lightning of heaven made to blast vice exalted?
--Robespierre in 1794.
That should sound very familiar to all of us who lived through the 20th century.