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Monday, Nov 11 2013 10:26 AM

ROBERT PRICE: RIP to a great institution: democracy

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    Robert Price is The Californian's editorial page editor. Email him at rprice@bakersfield.com.

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By ROBERT PRICE, Californian editorial page editor

This democracy thing was fun while it lasted, but you know the saying: All good things must come to an end.

Acknowledging that it’s over is always hard. You don’t want it to end. You’re proud of what the country has accomplished in its 237 years of existence. We created a society where every voice counted. Well, even if that wasn’t really true, it was a society where one could at least express that idealistic hope without fear of arrest. America was the model for 100 coups against tyranny around the world, some of which actually resulted in freer societies. We were the standard to which most nations aspired. A more perfect union.

But we’ve evolved into something else — a post-democratic society of contradictory, mutually exclusive “truths.” An oligarchy as entrenched as any in history.

Living in the midst of such dysfunction can be deceiving, but from the outside it’s all too obvious. In countries where Americans were once admired or hated, or both, there’s now a lot of head- scratching. Could the greatest nation on earth have really shut itself down?

Could it really have entertained the possibility of default, thereby risking a global depression — because a minority wing of the out-of-power party didn’t like one particular law? Yes, that really happened.

And it has emboldened our rivals. When the U.S. government went in to shutdown mode, the official Chinese news agency Xinhua took the opportunity to suggest that now was “perhaps a good time for the befuddled world to start considering building a de-Americanized world.”

Last week Forbes came out with its list of the world's most powerful people. "Who's more powerful: the autocratic leader of a former superpower,” the magazine asked, “or the handcuffed commander in chief of the most dominant country in the world?" No question: Vladimir Putin.

We invoke the founding fathers often, but they’d be aghast at what they might see today. Congress, no longer the province of gentlemen farmers and country lawyers, is now a $6 million undertaking. And because of those high stakes, elected leaders leave the policy decisions to staffers, party leaders and influential partisan “foundations” so they can devote time to their true priority, raising money.

And because fund-raising is so important, they spend an inordinate amount of time negotiating legally permissible bribes from the agents of union and corporate fat cats. Those payoffs are huge and pervasive in part because the U.S. Supreme Court somehow concluded that corporations are people and money is constitutionally protected speech. As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman points out, our abandonment of certain longstanding ideals is made complete by gerrymandered districts, which build inflexible constituencies, and emasculated voting rights laws, which several states have shredded to squelch undesirable dissent.

Even the greatest of our freedoms, freedom of speech, has been corrupted. On one hand, anybody can say almost anything they want, factual or not, on a multitude of online platforms. But objective, authoritative information is hard to come by, with the most popular news sources expressing the shade of “truth” that most comfortably suits their viewers’ predominate mindset.

If only we’d been able to hang on a few more years, until the last of the Greatest Generation passed on. Instead we subjected them to the insult of a lockout at the World War II Memorial. Sorry, gentlemen, the America you helped preserve is closed today.

Well, it was a good run, though. We accomplished some great things, not the least of which was saving the world. We created a great template for governance, even though we strayed from it ourselves. Maybe American democracy will make a comeback one day, the way skinny ties and ’70s rock cycle back through our culture. I hope so. It was my favorite era, right up there with the Renaissance.

Reach Robert Price at rprice@bakersfield.com or via Twitter: @stubblebuzz.

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