Polar politics

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 August, 2011, 12:00am


Democracy is supposed to be the worst form of government, except for all the others - meaning it's the best of a lousy lot. I'm going to stick my neck out and say maybe that's not true anymore. Winston Churchill lived in a different world when he framed that famous quote. I think if he were living in America today, he might have to rethink his wisdom.

Democratic America has displayed the ugly underbelly of democracy to the world. Politicians, playing the worst kind of politics, have held each other to ransom over the country's economic future. Democracy allowed rival political parties to blackmail each other over how to fix the nation's mounting debt. They didn't care that a debt default would destroy not just the US but also the global economy. Instead of working on a compromise for the overall good, they waged ideological war over how to lower a multitrillion-dollar deficit that is bleeding the nation.

This game of political chicken, using rules of unrestrained democracy, has come at a heavy price - global mockery and a toll on the country's creditworthiness. My summer break in the US gave me a ringside seat to the sickening brinksmanship that further polarised the nation's politics. As a naturalised American, I felt a mixture of hopelessness and confusion. I kept asking myself: why are the politicians ruining the country? As a Hongkonger I wondered: is this the kind of 'see who blinks first' democracy that Hong Kong wants or needs?

American-style democracy has ground good governance to a virtual halt. In states such as California, referendums on every major issue have made good, effective and timely government virtually impossible. Imagine the Hong Kong government being forced to hold a referendum every time it wanted to add a new MTR line or raise the pay of foreign domestic workers.

Sure, democracy allows the people to choose and vote out their leaders. But the polarising games that have become the norm in American politics beg the question: does democracy demand that the players of democratic politics place more importance on the wider national interest or the narrow interests of their constituents? When push comes to shove, should the politicians produced by a democracy serve the overall good of society first, or bow initially to the ideological stand of their voter base?

The debt-reduction fight was waged not with the good of the nation in mind but with an eye to next year's elections. Rival politicians pandered to their voter base, drawing ideological lines in the sand they refused to cross. Some far-right politicians even made clear they would rather the government went broke than raise the debt ceiling without their ideological demands being met. They didn't care that a debt default would hurt millions of Americans that depend on the government for pensions or salaries.

You could argue that confrontation is all part of the democratic process. But how far do you take it? Surely, not to the point of a government shutdown. It's up to those who swear by democracy to prove that Churchill's wisdom is still valid today, when countries such as China are prosperous and efficient without democracy.

Michael Chugani is a columnist and broadcaster. mickchug@gmail.com


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