Itâ€™s ironic. At precisely the moment that Secretary of State Clinton was rightly striking out at the Chinese for their infringement of the rights of their own citizens to open Internet access, democracy was dying in America.
In fact now, following an era that might well be defined by Americaâ€™s twin credibility crises of the past decade, another looms.
The first two blows â€” blows that have left Americaâ€™s standing in the world weaker today than it has been at any time in the past half century, even with the many steps President Obama has taken to reverse the missteps of the Bush era â€” undercut two of what might be seen as the three pillars of American standing on the planet.
The initial credibility crisis was triggered by the Bush administrationâ€™s reckless disregard for the values upon which the republic was founded. >From Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib, from the illegal invasion of Iraq to the rendition and torture of prisoners, Americaâ€™s role as a leader by virtue of our moral standing was called into question. The champions of the rule of law were now seen, rightfully, as one of its enemies, arguing as we were that there were two standards: that to which we held the rest of the world and that we chose for ourselves.
Next, Americaâ€™s role as an economic model for the world, champion of free markets and opportunity for all came under fire. In the run up to the economic crisis of 2008-2009, growing inequality in the United States was leading many critics to question our â€œleave it to the marketsâ€ approach. But then came the crisis and once again, the United States demonstrated that the doctrine we had preached worldwide were not going to be applied at home and moreover, that our system was deeply and fundamentally flawed. Doubt about â€œAmerican capitalismâ€ were only amplified in the aftermath of the crisis, in which middle class victims of the crisis were hardly helped and many were hurt but in which Wall Street fat cats called the tune, reaped the rewards of government intervention and then flouted their power by shrugging off the government when it was no longer necessary to their business plans.
What was left for Americans to cling to? Our moral standing and our fundamental message to the world had been built on the ideas of respect for the rule of law and free markets. And now the world was left to wonder, if not America, then to whom do we turn? Should we embrace other models?
Admittedly, the Chinese model, which might have had a shot at greater influence given the damage done to the U.S. brand, wasnâ€™t doing itself any favors with its attempt to deny its people both basic rights of all international citizens of the 21st Century â€¦ which would also have the effect of making Chinese workers less competitive in the global economy. Hillary Clintonâ€™s speech attacking this was forceful and utterly appropriate. The Chinese whining in response to it was a sign of weakness and with some luck, the Obama administration will ignore it, shrug off the Chinese threats of consequences in other areas of the bilateral relationship, and continue to press home this essential point.
But the argument on behalf of the American way was made immeasurably harder recently by the Supreme Courtâ€™s devastating blow to several of the most fundamental precepts of American society â€” equal rights, for example, or truly free speech (which is to say the right speak and be heard, without having to pay for it).
By a 5-4 vote the justices of the court, with the Republican right in the majority, struck down limits on corporate campaign spending. Further building on the dangerous fiction in American law that corporations ought to have rights akin to those of individuals, the decision effectively unleashes the floodgates of corporate and union money into the political arena.
This is certainly a more powerful threat to democracy than terrorism. It may well be a more powerful threat to democracy than was the fatally-flawed Soviet Union. Because to the extent to which politicians depend on donations to remain in power, they are inevitably influenced by those who have the most money. Not surprisingly, corporate entities, representing many people and often vast economic enterprises, have vastly more financial resources than individuals. Arguing, as American right wingers do, that campaign donations are form of free speech and thus cannot be constrained, ignores the reality that by equating money with free speech we effectively say that those with more money have more free speech, are entitled to greater influence within our society.
The implications are stark. Should this decision go unreversed by subsequent action of the Congress, a future court or a future constitutional amendment, it tips the balance of power in the United States even farther away from average people and in the direction of elites. Since campaign donations do not flow from companies primarily for ideological reasons but rather to advance narrow self-interests, the business of U.S. political class will necessarily be driven by the politics of the business class.
In a nutshell, yesterdayâ€™s Supreme Court decision made it very likely that America will not be an effective leader in combating global warming or preserving global resources, it will not be able to effectively resolve the internal threats to its own society like a failing health care system, and it will pursue international policies that are driven less by the broad national interest and more by the agenda of companies that in fact, have increasingly little national identity.
In this respect, this compromise of the third and most important pillar of U.S. international leadership-democracy, may be the most damaging of all. We can repair, as the Obama administration has attempted to do, the abuses of the Bush years. But if the courtâ€™s action does in effect institutionalize Calvin Coolidgeâ€™s old idea that â€œthe business of America is businessâ€ it will be impossible to either effectively redress the flaws in the American economic model or for us to continue to argue that the nation that was the most important pioneer of representative democracy will continue to be able to play that role.