Democracy and Its Perils: Votes and Voters Go Astray

Does American Democracy Still Work? by Alan Wolfe. Yale University Press, 216 pages, $22.

Is Democracy Possible Here? Principles For a New Political Debate, by Ronald Dworkin. Princeton University Press, 192 pages, $19.95.

In his second inaugural address, President George W. Bush declared that supporting democracy—“the imperative of self-government”—is “the calling of our time.” Standing with democratic reformers everywhere, the President proclaimed that in the long run, there can be neither justice without freedom nor human rights without human liberty.

At home, Mr. Bush acknowledged, democratic ideals had not yet been fully realized. Too many Americans still labored “on the edge of subsistence,” unable to take full control of their destinies. But the nation, he concluded, would address these problems “with complete confidence” because history “has a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of Liberty.”

In the last two years, Mr. Bush’s critics have expressed doubts about whether democracy is on the march around the world. And with increasing ferocity, they now warn that democratic traditions and institutions are under siege in the United States. Three new books paint a grim picture of American democracy in the 21st century. The authors argue, cogently, that the public is uninformed, disengaged and easily manipulated; that politics has become a war between ideologues; that the right of privacy and the doctrine of the separation of powers have been subverted; and that the electronic voting machines that have been widely installed throughout the nation are vulnerable to sabotage. Passionate and, at bottom, partisan, Is Democracy Possible Here?, Does American Democracy Work? and Brave New Ballot provide red meat for those who are blue—just in time for the election of 2006. But they don’t point the way to a new consensus—and sometimes, in spite of themselves, they deepen anxiety about the future of democracy in America.

Aviel Rubin, a professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins University, believes that the integrity of elections in the United States has been compromised. An expert on information security, Mr. Rubin blew the whistle on the Diebold corporation, whose C.E.O., Wally O’Dell, affirmed in 2003 that he intended to deliver Ohio to President Bush. Mr. Rubin demonstrates that Diebold’s electronic voting machines, which comprise 80 percent of the market in America, had shoddy programming and outdated encryption. More controversially, Mr. Rubin insists that any manufacturer can commit wholesale fraud by imbedding malicious software into the terminal that controls the process. Since he believes that these Trojan Horses cannot be detected, even by experts, he advocates a voter-verifiable paper trail.

Despite Mr. Rubin’s zealous efforts, which included testimony at Congressional hearings and appearances on 60 Minutes, CNN and NPR, election officials—who failed to understand that testing assesses functionality, not security—certified the paperless electronic machines as secure and reliable. Forty-two states used them in 2004; a bill requiring a paper trail that could be independently audited was defeated in the House of Representatives.

Our democracy, Mr. Rubin writes, has been unable to protect “the only process that could ensure its survival.” Equally ominous is a dilemma unresolved in Brave New Ballot: How can issues that require technical expertise be addressed in a democracy? Very few Americans can weigh the merits of Mr. Rubin’s claims about the defects in electronic voting machines. The only way to understand the risk, he suggests, “is to ask the people who have the expertise and experience.” Even if the experts agree—and they do not—such deference seems dangerous and undemocratic. After all, as Mr. Rubin also recognizes, “No American should have to trust someone else, someone with obscure expertise regarding the integrity of the system.”

In Does American Democracy Still Work?, Alan Wolfe, a professor at Boston College, examines the political implications of voter ignorance. Americans, he reports, lack the factual basis to make informed choices. Two-thirds of survey respondents think the federal government spends more on foreign aid than on Social Security; a third do not know whether they pay more income tax than Social Security and Medicare tax—and many of the rest gave the wrong answer.

Mainstream media and cable, Mr. Wolfe suggests, contribute to this ignorance by focusing on “soft news,” abandoning the ideal of disinterested authority and showcasing debates between partisans, where emotional appeals count for more than reason. And politicians, knowing they won’t be held accountable, exploit ignorance to take the public from the middle to the outer edges of the ideological spectrum.

Though he doesn’t hold Democrats blameless, Mr. Wolfe insists that right-wing Republicans, “who have never given any indication of being constrained by conscience,” are the principal architects and beneficiaries of “illiberal democracy.” Turning their backs on the Enlightenment, they use populist rhetoric to ignore, disdain and suppress scientific research so they can gut environmental regulations. They enact tax policies that are “among the more immoral actions taken by any presidential administration in the past century.”

Democracies, Mr. Wolfe observes, are not intrinsically just. They achieve “just outcomes only by working against the grain of democratic expectations,” including a crude majoritarianism and the politics of personal gratification, the very concepts invoked by the radical right.

The triumph of this new “democracy,” Mr. Wolfe believes, is not inevitable. But his strategies for restoring respect for pluralism and a civil, reasoned political discourse are mostly hortatory. Ignoring structural reforms, such as an end to the gerrymandering of Congressional districts, Mr. Wolfe places a bet on the cyclical nature of American politics. The Republican ascendancy, he declares, is “inherently unstable,” promising results it cannot deliver. Americans may tire of it. He concludes by calling for reform by spontaneous generation, as the voters rouse themselves, insist that “leaders tell them the truth even when it contradicts their desires,” and replace them when they don’t.

Ronald Dworkin agrees that American politics is in an appalling state. Politicians use “the maximal distortion that leaves some tiny fig leaf of truth somewhere in the fine print.” There’s no agreement about basic principles, and therefore no room for substantive argument “among people of mutual respect.” A distinguished professor of law at New York University and University College London, Mr. Dworkin seeks to change—and revitalize—political discourse by articulating two tenets of democracy on which Americans can agree: first, that every human life has value and dignity, not only to the individual but to all of us; and second, that all persons have a special responsibility to realize their own potential. He then applies these principles to the great issues of our time: terrorism and human rights, religion in public life, and social justice and taxation. If all Americans grounded convictions about specific policies in an interpretation of shared precepts, Mr. Dworkin suggests, they might actually learn something from one another.

It’s a noble aspiration. And Is Democracy Possible Here? is a perceptive and penetrating book. Mr. Dworkin’s distinction between a tolerant religious community and a tolerant secular community, and his argument about balancing security against honor and not against rights, should be required reading for every American. But, as he acknowledges, most people now have little interest in engaging “those they regard as belonging to an entirely alien religious or political culture.”

Most Americans may well assent to Mr. Dworkin’s two principles. But they will differ, often profoundly, about definitions, applications, and the relationship of one principle to the other. They will not “quickly agree about decisions that people do not have a right to make for themselves.” Or that claims that pre-tax income is “my money” are incoherent because earnings depend “entirely on the political settlement in force” at any given time. Or about the facts relevant to abortion. If abortion is murder, Mr. Dworkin admits, then outlawing it constitutes no offense against liberty. And he knows that many Americans, across the political spectrum, won’t agree with him when he declares that a fetus is a human being—but that it has no mental life, no interests, and therefore no rights to protect.

Like Mr. Wolfe, Mr. Dworkin concludes by turning pessimism of the intellect into optimism of the will, which merely underscores the absence of answers for our increasingly hollow democracy: “the roots of the love of dignity in our national character … cannot entirely have withered. I called for argument in this book, and you may think that I have now, at the very end, fallen back only on faith. You may be right. But argument is pointless without faith in those with whom you argue.”

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.