TIME TO CONSIDER THE FATE OF OUR DEMOCRACY
AS A NATIONAL SECURITY ISSUE
- By Richard W. Mueller
Recently the National Security Forum polled our members to ask about national security issues that will impact us significantly and that ought to be addressed in a future Forum.
I realize that the suggestion I am offering here may seem to take the Forum away from its traditional focus on military, economic, terrorism and other politico-military topics. And yet in the same way Paul Kennedy’s Rise and Fall of the Great Powers made the case that a strong economy is a key to maintaining a strong military, I believe a supportive, engaged citizenry is also required to sustain consistent and effective national security policies.
While there is no end to discrete national security issues, I would argue that NSF should also give priority to stimulating productive, collaborative, on-going and friendly exchanges about the future of our democracy and democratic processes.
Without strengthening and improving those processes, we face deadlock and decline in our political life and society, with an inevitable undermining of our national security.
I believe that what unites us as Americans far exceeds what divides us.
Sadly, we’ve lost sight of that truism and taken ourselves to a place where demonizing others and resorting to harsh and personal attacks have become a norm. Too often we don’t really listen to each other, much less engage in conversation and debate with a view to building bridges, collaborating, and even compromising.
I would urge the Board of Trustees to create discussion groups consisting of people of varying opinions and ask them to work through some objective options to strengthen our democracy. Think of the range of experience and insight NSF members could offer. The aim would be to talk about what makes for good democratic processes for the good of all and not only for the ends of politicians, ideologies, or political parties.
There’s no one solution or magic bullet. Working together to change opinions and institute new practices will take time.
But we must add urgency to this effort.
Here are some of the disturbing and even dangerous trends we must address:
— How do we square the Electoral College with the popular vote? Twice in recent years the winner of the popular vote did not win the presidential election (Gore and Clinton). Does the principle of one person/one vote not matter? How do we justify devaluing so many voters? Cynicism is growing that those who benefit from this inequality are happy to continue because they retain greater power beyond their numbers.
— How do we reduce significantly the gerrymandering of districts by incumbent parties? There is less and less true competition for political office for the House, Senate, and local government offices.
— How do we reduce the outlandish cost of elections? If we were buying a better democratic system with all those billions of dollars, that would be good. But clearly we are not. I know from personal experience talking with members of Congress that they themselves feel the enormous, negative burden of having to raise ungodly amounts of cash every day. Of course those donors expect pay back. I’m aware of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. Still, we must find a way. How about limiting members of Congress to accepting campaign contributions only from people in their own districts or states? How about more mandated free access to the media?
— How do we increase effective civics education in schools and more broadly? Does the general population have a good understanding of what our democracy entails? Does it understand the importance of wrestling with issues and VOTING? How do we create easy access to voting for all qualified Americans? How about making voting mandatory as is the case in some democracies?
— How will we hold our leaders/politicians to a high standard of truth-telling? We are seeing how social media facilitates the passing on of false information in a damaging way. Repeating falsehoods or misleading information for political ends should carry a price.
— Where will we find the honest, ethical leaders/politicians of the future? Far too many young people and others refuse to subject themselves to what they see as the dreadful process of raising money and putting themselves and their families through endless agony of personal attacks, etc. We must attract our best and brightest to political leadership.
— Do words matter? Does character count? It’s appalling how candidates can say some of the most egregious things, reveal real character flaws and still be rewarded. What’s happened to our political discourse that it has been so cheapened and coarsened?
— How do we reduce the continuous political campaigning that helps make virtually every issue a potentially partisan one? When the focus is on who will run and who will win, attention is shifted from dealing seriously and even collaboratively with our challenges. Already speculation about the 2020 presidential race has begun.
— How do we show the world that democratic systems really are superior, over the long term, than others? Too many autocrats abroad are arguing that they can make superior decisions and implement them expeditiously. We need to brighten the wattage of America’s shining city on a hill. The world is watching!
— Can we stop using political science terms like liberal, conservative, leftist, rightest, progressive, socialist, libertarian, green? Not one has a fully defined set of principles or beliefs that reasonably tell the voter what he or she will be getting, particularly in our increasingly complex, fast-changing society. Instead, let’s demand our candidates address issues and provide evidence, for example: Will reducing taxes grow the economy? Are Americans willing to put larger numbers of combat troops into the Middle East and, if so, to what end? What are the scientific facts about climate change? Do charter schools produce better student learning outcomes? How do we build critical future relationships with China?
The questions above are meant to be non-partisan. There is plenty of criticism to direct at everyone, including ourselves, the voters. I’m not trying to eliminate the often rough and tumble of politics and debate; they are inevitable. I’m looking for ways to improve our democracy and democratic processes for everyone.
Such NSF discussion and study would be a great service by helping people of goodwill, even with differing opinions, to talk to each other and work together for the long term good of our country.
Let’s remember the task set for us by Benjamin Franklin when asked what kind of government had been created. His answer: “A Republic, if you can keep it.”
Let’s find good ways to update and keep it!
Richard Mueller is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer and educator. His 32-year career focused on China and Asia, serving in Canberra, Saigon, Taiwan, Beijing, Hong Kong and elsewhere. Early in his career he worked for Secretary Kissinger and later for Secretary Shultz and Secretary Baker. He capped his diplomat career as American Consul General and Chief of Mission in Hong Kong in the years leading up to the territory’s reversion to China in 1997.
Subsequently, for fifteen years Richard was head of school at Northfield Mount Hermon School in Massachusetts, Hong Kong International School, and most recently Shanghai American School. Richard and his wife, Claire, have just settled in Golden, Colorado to be close to family and grandchildren.
Do you agree with Richard that this is a topic suitable for NSF discussion and debate?