WARSAW—Over the past 20 years, I’ve spent a lot of time in countries that are not democracies but would like to be. First in Central Europe and the former Soviet Union, more recently in North Africa, I’ve met many, many people who are trying to figure out how to translate that elusive, almost mystical concept, “the will of the people,” into the practical matters of government: taxation, public spending, defense, law and order, garbage collection. Over and over again, I’ve watched them construct institutions designed to make possible that translation from the mystical into the practical: parliaments, presidencies, court systems. Sooner or later, they all learn that the act of voting is a necessary but insufficient component of democracy. Without legitimate representative and executive institutions—institutions that can translate the “will of the people” into concrete policies—democracy always fails.
From my perch overseas, I’ve been watching the run-up to the government shutdown in Washington for several weeks now, and at times I have tried to explain it to bemused foreigners. Many of them think, mistakenly, that Americans are having an argument about the budget, or about the deficit. I have to put them straight: No, in fact this is an attempt by one part of the U.S.political system to stop the implementation of a single law, the Affordable Care Act—Obamacare—and to use the budgetary process in order to do so. If my interlocutors come from democratic countries, they then look puzzled.
If they read the commentary pouring out of Washington they are even more confused, as am I. What surprises me—shocks me—are the many people who have written, blogged or self-righteously tweeted about the results of various opinion polls on these events, as if they mattered. Do 47 percent of Americans oppose Obamacare? Do 73.7 percent oppose Obamacare? Do 97 percent of Republicans hate Obamacare even more than they hate death and taxes? Who cares? In a functioning democracy, it doesn’t matter what the majority happen to think at any given moment. What matters is what the legitimate, representative, legal institutions have already decided.
I am not an expert on the economics of health care, and therefore I really don’t know whether Obamacare is ultimately going to be good or bad for America. I am very glad that it will help the poor and the uninsured get access to doctors, hospitals, and medicine. I’m very worried that it may be too expensive and will further extend U.S. indebtedness. But I also recognize that at this point, what I think doesn’t really matter. The Affordable Care Act passed both houses of Congress. It was signed into law by the president. It was confirmed by the Supreme Court. The president who originally sponsored the health care reform was then sent back to the White House following an election during which that reform was a major topic of debate.
Obamacare is the law, as confirmed by the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of our political system. A portion of one of those branches is therefore not now legally or morally empowered to change that law by holding other parts of the government hostage, no matter how strongly its members or their constituents feel. So how is it possible that so many Americans, including some who have been elected to Congress, no longer understand this principle, so fundamental to our entire political system, and so vitally necessary to the functioning of democracies around the world? I repeat, democracy is not designed to reflect majority opinion. It is designed to filter majority opinion through legitimate institutions and to translate it, through agreed procedures, into policy.
Plenty of people outside the U.S. understand how strange this debate has become. A couple of days ago, an Egyptian tweeted that it was “impressive how everyone in #US follows the law even in the face of extreme political vandalism by an irrational fringe. #Egypt.” His intention was ironic, but actually, he was right. In many parts of the world—in, say, Egypt—an “irrational fringe” group of politicians who tried to subvert the entire political system by overturning a law already confirmed by three branches of government would be called “insurgents” or “coup-plotters” and their behavior would lead to arrest, prison, or worse.
But because Americans, even irrational Americans, no longer use violence to achieve their goals, because this process is still just barely taking place within the outer boundaries of those institutions, and because the protagonists still observe the language if not always the spirit of the law, the result is peaceful. That is indeed impressive. But it is a narrow achievement. Americans are paying a high price for the events of this week, though they may not know it. The cost of shutting down the federal government for a few days or even a few weeks pales in comparison with the damage we are doing not only to the credibility of the United States abroad, but to the credibility of democracy itself.