Notebook — From the June 2008 issue

Democracy and Deference

( 3 of 5 )

Democracy, of course, is not an absolute but a relative value: “We’re not perfect,” the cry will sound, “but show us who is!” I’ll take a pass on perfection, but I’ll say this: when it comes to the egalitarian attitude democracy presupposes, the Brits, for all their wigged getups and parliamentary histrionics, have it all over us. It’s not just the formal, procedural differences between the two political cultures (the mandated brevity of the British election season, or the government’s strictures on how much money a candidate can spend) that cast us in a sad and diminished light; it’s the difference in spirit that lies behind, and informs, these distinctions.

In general, the Brits act as though the government is their business and they have every right to meddle in it. Americans, by and large, display no such self-assurance. To the contrary, we seem to believe, deep in our hearts, that the business of government is beyond our provenance. What accounts for the difference? My wife, whose family hails in part from England, has a theory: unlike us, the Brits don’t confuse their royalty with their civil servants, because they have both, clearly labeled. Acknowledging the universal desire to defer, they channel that desire, wisely, into the place where it can do the least harm, a kind of political sump. Americans, on the other hand, lacking the royal catch basin, are squeezed between pretense and practice. Though we continue to pay lip service to the myth of the independent American, we understand it as a fiction—nice for a Friday night with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s but about as relevant to today’s world as a butter churn.

On the other side of the Atlantic, meanwhile, the Brits have become, in large part, what we were once supposed to be. Consider, for starters, the unavoidable (if largely symbolic) fact that our president lives ensconced in a palace, while 10 Downing Street is a row house. From there, consider the regal arrogance of the president and the president’s men: their refusal to justify or explain policy, or abide by the Constitution, or respond to the concerns of Congress. Next, consider the spectacle presented by the president’s “meetings with the people,” when he deigns to have them. Consider the extent to which he is scripted, buffered, coddled; the extent to which his audiences are screened to assure that they consist of cheerleaders whose “questions” are nothing more than praise couched in the shape of a question, or who don’t even bother with the interrogative form and, like one woman at a Bush “rally,” walk up to the microphone and say things like “my heroes have always been cowboys,” then sit down to thunderous applause.

More? Recall an average press conference: the president striding to the podium, his slightly irritated, patronizing manner. Recall the press corps’ sycophantic chuckling at every half-assed quip, its willingness to accept the most insulting answers, its downright Prufrockian (“and how should we presume”) inability to challenge an obvious untruth. Consider the fundamental inequality implicit in the fact that the president is always addressed as “Mr. President,” while septuagenarian journalists are invariably “Tom” or “Judy.” Survey the whole sad spectacle, soup to nuts, then dare to consider what the alternative might look like.

To indulge this fantasy, look up one of the question-and-answer programs on the BBC and watch a prime minister sweat, literally, while answering questions from an audience specially selected, according to the New York Times, to assure that its members “are tough and knowledgeable.” Or take in one of the many lengthy press conferences, noting in particular how seriously the PMs take the process, or how, on being told that they haven’t answered the question precisely, they apologize (apologize!) and try again. But why stop there? Make it hurt. Look up the session in which former Prime Minister Tony Blair appears in front of a live audience whose indignant members demand an apology from him for going to war, and respond to his answers, as one woman did, with “That’s rubbish, Tony.”

Now recall that steel tycoon who, upon accidentally addressing the president as “Mr. Truman” rather than “Mr. President,” was never able to forgive himself for the breach of etiquette. Which one is the citizen, and which the subject?

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