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The Pathology of U.S. Democracy



Electoral politics is a moral and intellectual wasteland. There is no room for anyone of principle, whatever that principle might be.

As a libertarian, I see little difference between Obama and Romney. They both favor a perpetual war on terror, an occupation of Afghanistan, military aid to Israel, indefinite detention of terror suspects, military imprisonment outside the bounds of habeas corpus, warrantless wiretapping, the TSA, the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, the FDA, the war on drugs, gun control, bailouts, Keynesian economics, income taxation, Social Security, Medicare, central banking, subsidies for rich and poor, licensing in industry, public education, employment regulation, agriculture corporatism, tariffs, and a federal budget that amounts to far more than ten thousand dollars for every man, woman, and child in this country.

It is not only that the two candidates share much more in common with one another than they do with my vision of a free society; both candidates offer very little for the principled folks in their own party. I would think even a progressive or conservative would find it almost impossible to support either side. On issues like immigration, abortion, trade, taxes, deficit spending, and healthcare, for better or worse, the two politicians have gravitated toward a policy of status quo interventionism.

It may very well be, from whatever point of view, that Obama is worse than Romney, or vice versa, but we have no way of knowing. On the major issues that drive government policy the most—war and domestic crises—there is no way to predict how each candidate would respond.

The core problem concerns the nationalist collectivism that has overtaken American political culture. The majority of Americans expect the central state and its presidential figurehead to address any and all problems—unemployment, economic instability, the business cycle, Syrian despotism, terrorism, rising healthcare costs, prescription drugs, poor performance in the public schools, trade and labor issues, family planning, gun violence, the tone of civil discourse, housing prices, and everything else. Of course it is madness to expect 300 million people to live under one person who effectively directs the nation in all these affairs. It is ridiculous to expect one person to even understand all these affairs. The way it is supposed to work is that two candidates offer very different approaches to all issues. Even if this occurred, it would hardly be ideal—who is to say that either side would get more than a handful of issues right? Yet it is worse than this. When voters expect Washington, DC, to take the lead role in solving all problems under the sun, and look particularly to the president to lead every crusade, we should not suffer shock when both candidates try their best to hold on to the support from their side while catering to the center, thus gravitating toward similar positions on all the big issues. And the more issues there are, of course the more superficial becomes even the language with which the candidates approach them.

The pathology of mass democracy translates into ugly social divisions. Great liberal thinkers from Bastiat to Mises have demonstrated that all classes have nothing to fear from one another in a market economy. Freedom of exchange results in the harmonization of interests. Politics, on the other hand, creates fissures that need not exist. Every minor issue becomes blown up into a Manichean struggle. This happens especially over relatively minor issues, because these are the only ones over which the mainstream politicians evince even a rhetorical disagreement. The truly foundational issues of our time—mass confiscation of wealth, IRS despotism, mass imprisonment, militarized policing at home and unending warfare abroad—unite both major parties behind an establishment agenda. They bicker instead over relatively small matters, each one of which becomes amplified into the greatest battle in the history of the world at election time.

It is disturbing to see the hatred flying back and forth between partisans close to a presidential election. It is also ironic, because in terms of core principles, I feel I have less in common with either a Romney or Obama supporter than they do with one another. Yet as someone with a political philosophy completely at odds with zeitgeist thinking, I have forced myself to learn how to coexist civilly and peacefully with people whose views I find contemptible and dangerous. I can get along fine with neighbors who I sincerely believe embrace mass murder, slavery, torture, and armed robbery—and they can get along fine with me, a person with positions that they probably think would undermine civilization if implemented. Given my capacity to amicably interact with people whose views could hardly be more different, I would think that a debate over 1% of the federal budget should never escalate into the exaggerated acrimony we see at election time. Yet online, especially, it seems that Republicans and Democrats see one another as enemies of all that is good. So they line up behind politicians with much in common and scream at the other side, as though what happens in November will determine the very fate of the republic in any sort of predictable sense.

I am accustomed to taking positions that some would regard as extreme or radical. Yet on Election Day, I feel like a moderate compared to most of my compatriots. Whether America suffers another four years of Obama’s rule or Romney gets a chance to reign over the nation, I doubt it will make that much a difference on the whole.

I do expect it to matter somewhat to the way political debate becomes framed, and this does carry importance in the long run. If Obama wins, conservatives will continue condemning the growth of government and the antiwar movement will continue to be a curiosity of early 21st century history, rather than a living and breathing force to be reckoned with, as it was early in the Iraq war. If Romney wins, conservatives will become much less vocal in standing up against domestic government expansion, and the antiwar left will possibly come back to life. If Obama wins, any problems overseas will be wrongly blamed on American pacifism. If Romney wins, a faltering economy will be wrongly blamed on the free market.

I used to find it depressing that no matter who won, I had to share disappointment with the losing side, and never got to cheer for the winner. For the first time, I think I will look at it differently this November. Either Obama or Romney will lose, and both surely deserve to. At least I’ll get to see that happen.

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