E.B. White, essayist and author of beloved children’s books, produced many quotable quotes, including the following: “When a man hangs from a tree, it doesn’t spell justice unless he helped write the law that hanged him.”
White’s words touch on a crucial component of democratic legitimacy. He is saying that if the democratic process is working fairly, even an unhappy result may be construed as a just outcome.
At the time of the Revolutionary War, Americans protested against taxation without representation — taxes imposed by Parliament, where the colonies had no voice. Giving the people a voice legitimates the actions of the government — even actions to which some people may be opposed.
A crisis of democracy is now raising questions about the future of the European Union and also suffusing American politics with a bitterly cynical edge. On both sides of the Atlantic the economic crisis has produced results that leave people feeling powerless and acted upon.
The economist Amartya Sen has written in The New Republic magazine that European bankers are destroying European democracy. The citizens of Greece and other troubled nations are watching as their fate is decided by distant bankers and bureaucrats imposing economic conditions on the Greek people and creating a crisis on the level of the Great Depression. Greeks, Spaniards and others have watched their taxes rise, services decline and economy disintegrate — without representation. They are hanging from a tree, and the law that put them there was not of their design.
It’s not as if the Greeks are blameless. Years of irresponsible governance and corruption put the nation deep into debt without the means to pay. They would be left to their own misery were they not part of the European Union, which has its own machinery for protecting the economic interests of the banks and of the more prosperous European economies. Greek voters elected a government that had pledged to accept the European rescue measures, including austerity, so in that sense, they voted to hang themselves. But the crisis has revealed the ways the European system undermines democracy by allowing banks to dictate economics to nations.
The United States, too, has undergone an erosion of the sense of democratic legitimacy in recent years. Some segments of the population have refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of President Obama’s administration, searching for reasons the products of our democracy — the acts of Congress, the signature of the president — do not represent the will of the people. Those who question the circumstances of Obama’s birth, for example, have shown themselves unwilling to respect the workings of democracy.
When George W. Bush was elected in 2000, with the help of the Supreme Court, many people had trouble accepting the legitimacy of his presidency, a resentment that was exacerbated by Bush’s arrogant conduct in office. In fact, Bush became president in accordance with the rules of the game, even if those rules — the Electoral College, for example — do not further the interests of democracy. For Bush’s opponents to reject the legitimacy of Bush’s administration was to undermine the legitimacy of the democracy.
The bitterness that prevails on the left and the right today arises in part because people believe their voices are not heard adequately in the halls of power. People at both ends of the spectrum believe that big money drowns out the voices of the people.
Painful action may be in store for us in order to put our economy in order. Pain would result from Republican proposals to slash services and raise taxes on the middle class; pain would result from Democratic proposals to reform entitlement programs and decrease defense spending. Unless we believe we have a say in writing the law that hangs us, then we are not apt to believe the outcome is just. Bitterness will be the result, and democracy will be the victim.MORE IN Editorials
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