By Donella Meadows
–November 14, 1991–
Welcome, Melinda, to the United States. Your Hungarian university sent you here to practice English, and since you’ve arrived at the beginning of a presidential election season, you’ll also get to see “democracy” in action. I know people in your country are very interested in democracy, so I’ll do the best I can to explain it to you.
Let’s see, to begin, we have two political parties, the Republicans and the Democrats.
Right, George Bush is a Republican. He is up for re-election, and he is becoming unpopular, because everyone blames him for the current economic depression. In fact he is not responsible for that — presidents don’t cause rises and falls in market economies. Ronald Reagan didn’t make the economic boom of the late 1980s, and George Bush didn’t make the current downturn. But politicians like to take credit for the ups, which means they get blamed for the downs. It’s not very logical, but you’ll see, Melinda, that there’s not much logic to democracy.
If presidents don’t make business cycles, who does? The combined actions of all businesses do. They don’t know when to stop, you see. They build up the economy far beyond what anyone needs or can afford, and then all those extra condominiums and shops stand empty and cause bankruptcies, and people get fired and buy less, and business gets bad and even more people get fired, and so on, in a downward spiral. Eventually the economy turns around and everyone builds too much and it happens again. You’ll see how the cycles work, as Hungary develops its market economy. You’ll probably blame your politicians for them too.
Back to the Republicans, you say. What IS a Republican? Well, hmmm, good question. The Republicans are said to be “conservative,” but in fact many of them are quite radical. Since they have been in control of the Executive Branch for almost twelve years now, they have made a lot of changes. They have taxed rich people much less and everyone else much more. They have spent more money on weapons and cut money from education, environment, welfare, and most other government functions. They have filled the courts with judges who don’t much believe in peoples’ rights. They get campaign money from bankers and big businesses, so they use the power of government mostly to do what banks and big businesses want done.
Why would anyone except rich people vote for Republicans? Well, I haven’t told you yet about Democrats. They are said to be “liberal,” but in fact they are dependent upon campaign money from the same sources as the Republicans. The Democrats don’t seem to stand for anything in particular. A good number of them, the ones from the South, are Republicans in disguise. The Democrats have a majority in the Legislative Branch, so they keep the Republican Executive somewhat in check, which is probably a good thing. But on the whole the Democrats are not all that different from the Republicans.
You say I’m sounding a little angry? Well, you’re right, Melinda, I am angry. And tired. And sad. My government has done a lot of lying lately. It has been riddled with corruption and incompetence and waste. I hate to tell you this, when you have waited so long for your own democracy, but you can’t relax now and expect everything to be all right. Democracy requires continuous vigilance from the people. Unfortunately, our people have forgotten that.
Lots of our citizens don’t even bother to vote. Some folks think we can get a better government with “term limitation,” which means that we would only let a politician serve for a given number of years and then he or she couldn’t stand for election any more. Term limitation is a strange concept, since of course we already have the power to VOTE the bad guys out of office in every election. Term limitation would take away our power to keep in office the honest, hard-working, dedicated people — and there still are some, thank goodness.
Why would the people of a democracy ever give away one of their powers? Good question; I wish I knew the answer. Part of it, I guess, is that we have become too lazy to sort out the good guys from the scalawags. We have to go to some effort to do that; the newspapers and television aren’t much help. We have to do research to see what people really voted for, what they really did in office. We have to call the League of Women Voters or go to a library to look it up. It takes time; most people don’t bother.
Why don’t the candidates tell us in the election campaigns what they stand for? Ha, that’s really funny, Melinda. Wait a few months and you’ll see what our campaigns are like. A terrible thing has happened; the politicians have gotten the idea that they can win by telling us nothing about themselves — they just tell us mean, dirty things, often untrue things, about their opponents. They call it “negative campaigning.” The Republicans are especially good at it.
Why does anyone vote for a candidate who does negative campaigning? I don’t know, Melinda. I think that any candidate who allows it should be considered morally unfit for office. But sometimes there’s no choice. Negative campaigning is a terrible virus that infects everyone; it makes the whole country sick.
What was that big sigh all about? Democracy is hard, yes it is. I hope you do better at it than we do. I hope you learn from our mistakes. I hope WE learn from our mistakes. The one great thing about democracy is that it does allow learning, it can repair itself, if the people just wake up and remember that the power is, and should be, ultimately theirs.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1991