Robert Kaiser (Washington Post) answers questions about Bush’s latest address to the UN

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Society
September 24th, 2003 • 10:29 pm

This “Live Online” transcript on the Washington Post web site in which Associated Editor Robert Kaiser answers questions from readers is an interesting read.

It shows that at least some Americans have a fairly open-minded and balanced view of the whole US/Iraq/UN situation.

The question it doesn’t address, of course, is how representative this is of the general public mood in the US at this point. I guess we’ll have to wait until the 2004 election.

The distressing fact that this whole saga has illustrated is that, under the cover of “democracy”, what we really have in the US and many other modern societies is a form of “intermittent oligarchy”, with a handful of people brought in from the president’s entourage who, for a few years, are free to indulge in any of their social/economic/political fantasies and to manipulate the media (and, therefore, public opinion) into believing that this is all “democracy at work”.

I am not advocating recall procedures, far from it. But surely this system where, once elected with a majority, politicians are free to roam while remaining above both domestic and international law does not really deserve to be called a democracy.

3 Responses to “Robert Kaiser (Washington Post) answers questions about Bush’s latest address to the UN”

  1. Henry Neugass says:

    It’s not a bug, it is a feature.

    What you describe in dark terms is a primary characteristic of representative government: A candidate, once elected, is given latitude to do his/her job as he/she sees fit. The alternative is … well, I don’t think anyone has yet come up with a method of taking into account the wishes of individual citizens in real time. I’m not sure we would really want to do so, even if the technical means were available.

    Other than places such as California, where a recall is a practical (and comedic) possibility, the only sanctions available are to turn a misbehaving official out of office at the end of the current term and the judgment of history. Again, I’m not sure we would want mass, real-time control. Maybe an electric shock grid in the office chair, operated by Internet vote?

    Perhaps “intermittent oligarchy” is the result of an implementation flaw in representative government, which is –for better or worse– the prevailing implementation method in democracies. If you feel that it is an inherent flaw in democracy per se, sure, give it a shot, argue that.

    Most of your entry casts doubt on the current U.S. administration and its Middle East policy, but only by juxtaposition — not a very strong argument, and certainly not worthy of your passion and commitment. You might have better luck criticizing modern democracy as institution independent of current U.S. policy, and better traction arguing against U.S. policy in Iraq on its own merits.

    Oh, yes, the Kaiser piece. I can’t claim to have read each component carefully, so my conclusion is admittedly weak: People bring their own preconceptions to this (as any) issue, and often they are prisoners of those preconceptions.

  2. Pierre Igot says:

    It might be a “feature” of democracy, but I have heard too many people lately using the word “democracy” for things that have little to do with it…

    I guess my question is HOW MUCH latitude should be given in between elections. It is quite obvious that 9/11 was an extraordinary event. But would the American people have elected (sort of) Bush if they had known that his administration would use 9/11 as an excuse to invade Iraq?

    It seems to me that, when such extraordinary events occur, elected politicians cannot claim to be acting on behalf of the people who elected them without new consultations. And I am not talking about surveys here. Surveys are too unreliable.

    It seems to me that, in between elections, we depend too much on the media to “represent” us and our opinion to the people that we elected. While there are many good journalists out there, the media as a whole cannot be trusted to provide reliable representation of the people.

    Please note that I am only using the US/Iraq situation here as an example. I am not sure I understand your point about juxtaposition — but I can only comment on modern democracy through its actual incarnations. The US is not the only one.

    For example, here in Canada we have this very weird system where, when a premier or the prime minister resigns, new elections are not called right away. The system just assumes that, when you voted for a certain party leader, you actually meant to vote for the party itself, and they can appoint another leader to the position until the next election is scheduled, even if you never actually voted for THAT person. The current premier of Ontario, Ernie Eves, became premier when Mike Harris resigned, over a year ago, and the new elections are only taking place now. For over a year, the premier of Ontario was somebody that no elector chose to have as a premier. I find this very strange.

    The bottom-line, IMO, is that current “democracies” are not all that democratic, and are becoming less and less so. But that’s just my personal impression. I am certainly no expert, and I don’t have an easy “solution”. But I am a citizen of a democracy, so fortunately I am allowed to have an opinion, however flawed or weak it is :).

    Thanks for your comments.

  3. Henry Neugass says:

    “Democracy” on its own doesn’t mean much without practical implementation. It is all too common for people to mistake a flaw (or feature) in implementation as having direct meaning for the abstract principle.

    How much latitude? How “extraordinary” was the 9/11 event? Impossible to quantify, especially at this short remove and with the information available to us.

    For what it is worth, I think Mr. Bush is absolutely convinced on legal, moral, as well as political grounds that he has not only a lot of latitude, but an absolute duty to take strong action.

    He’s probably right, legally.

    Morally, well, it would depend on the moral system. I don’t particularly like his flavor of religion, nor the statements of zealotry that have have been attributed to him. On the other hand, one can have differing moral systems, different ways of stating the principles, and still agree on the practical consequences. For better or worse, it appears that the majority of the American people agree.

    Politically, since there’s no real opposition, thus far, that’s enough to prove him right.

    As to the media: blaming these problems on them obscures the issue. Another implementation mechanism of democracy is “participation” and the media is the most convenient conduit in one of two directions. The underlying issue is the lack of people choosing to participate.

    The point about juxtaposition is simply an objection to your placing bad things rhetorically alongside the U.S. system and not adequately demonstrating the connection that one results from the other.

    That’s an enlightening lesson from your side of the border. I guess the progenitors of your system balanced the evil of relative un-representation against the danger of having no leader at all, and came up with this particular solution. Depending on where you look in the U.S., our system has a slightly different balance.

    About the decreasing democracy. I don’t think any country can match the abstract concept, no more than very many humans are truly civilized or “sapient”.

    In practice, because of the actual interconnectedness of the modern world, Mr. Bush should be reaching out to you, a citizen of a different sovereign state, to make it clear that your opinion is heard and valued even though the U.S. has chosen a course with which you disagree. He is not doing a very good job, possibly not even attempting to do so, and deserves criticism for that.


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