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November 17, 2004
Vol. 2, No. 31



Margot Patterson The sad triumph of democracy

By Margot Patterson, NCR opinion editor

The Strange Death of Liberal England by George Dangerfield was published in 1935. In college, I read about this classic work on the decline of the Liberal Party in Britain. The party came to power in 1906 in a landslide victory. Ten years later, it formed a coalition government to wage World War I and lost its political footing and never regained it.

In the 10 years it was in power, social turmoil caused by industrial strikes, suffragette agitation, and a rebellion in Ulster against the prospect of Home Rule in Ireland took its toll on the party that had begun so brilliantly.

"The Cabinet was arguably the most talented ever assembled, including Herbert Asquith, David Lloyd George, Winston Churchill and Lord Grey, and revolutionized the machinery of British society" read a blurb on Amazon.com that I consulted to make sure I recalled the book correctly.

The phrase "the strange death of liberal England" came to mind after this country's presidential election, when I couldn't help but substitute "America" for the word "England."

I don't expect the United States to disappear or die, yet I wonder if the election signals the end of an era, the demise of a consensus that has been in place in the United States since Franklin Delano Roosevelt became president and an international system was built on the rubble of World War II. The consensus reflected a shared, liberal vision of America.

I don't mean "liberal" in a partisan or political way. I don't mean what some Republicans mean now when they use the L word to speak of "the liberal media" or "tax and spend liberals." Rather, I mean liberal as referring to a sense held by a majority in both parties that saw value in working within the international order abroad and maintaining good government at home. Civility was a plus. So was rationality. Thuggish behavior and veniality were defects.

After 9/11, our society was disturbed and our government disturbing. "This is not my country," protested a 72-year-old friend bewildered by her nation's decision last year to embrace pre-emptive war and invade Iraq. She has lived through World War II, the McCarthy era, the Vietnam War and the protests it aroused, Watergate and more.

My friend was not the only one alarmed. Nobel prize laureates in science protested that the Bush administration was ignoring scientific evidence in making policy; 50 retired diplomats and ex-ambassadors sent a letter urging the president to change his Mideast policy, which they said was desperately short-sighted; within the CIA there were public grumblings about administration policies that earned us enmity; opposition to the war in Iraq came not only from people protesting in the streets abroad but from military leaders within the Pentagon. The warnings of the ruling elites were ignored. A president who appealed to patriotism and to populism spoke over their heads to the American people and won their vote.

It was a sad victory for democracy. Ideology and populism trumped competence. The incompetence was clear: an unnecessary war followed by an inept occupation; record deficits with no plan to address them; educational mandates that went unfunded; disappointed and distrustful allies. And what was the ideology? Tax cuts for the rich and special interest groups; nationalism at home and abroad. You're either with us or against us. America: Love it or leave it.

"Liberalism in its Victorian plenitude had been an easy burden to bear, for it contained -- and who could doubt it -- a various and valuable collection of gold, stocks, Bibles, progressive thoughts, and decent inhibitions ... But somehow or other, as the century turned, the burden of Liberalism grew more and more irksome; it began to give out a dismal, rattling sound; it was just as if some unfortunate miracle had been performed upon its contents, turning them into nothing more than bits of old iron, fragments of intimate crockery, and other relics of a domestic past," wrote Dangerfield.

We used to be a liberal society that valued the rule of law. We are likely to be so again. In the meantime, we live with fewer freedoms than we used to have. Measures to protect our health and safety are disappearing. The human rights abuses we used to lecture other governments about are now committed by our own. This is our democracy today -- not dead but ailing.

Margot Patterson is NCR opinion editor. She can be reached at mpatterson@natcath.org

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