Stephen Gottlieb: What Makes American Democracy Successful?

We are justly proud of democracy in America. But what makes a democracy morally great and what makes it successful?

Many countries have elections but aren’t successful democracies. Their elections are about which families will reap the spoils of election victories. Successful democracies focus on taking care of the whole peoples of their countries. Lincoln spoke about government “of the people, by the people and for the people.” Speaking about democracy, we often concentrate on government “of … [and] by the people.” But Lincoln’s last clause – “for the people” – defines the difference between success and failure; between government and kleptocracies; between governments that get things done and governments that imitate the evil Sheriff of Nottingham, robbing from the poor to pay the rich.

There is an observable connection between governments that take care of their entire peoples, and countries that succeed.[i] Governments which owe their election to the few, reward their benefactors to keep their support. Governments which owe their elections to the mass of the people, try to serve their people, to provide schools, health services and infrastructure, to rescue their people from disaster and plan to prevent it. They try to give their people the tools for success, and survival. In taking care of their entire peoples, they build national success.

Some in this country criticize that idea, calling it “the nanny state.” They insist “government is the problem.” But if they are successful, it’s because American government led the world in provision of education, health and infrastructure that made everything else possible. We were long one of the world’s most educated countries and the creativity of our people reflected it. Government gave people access to land, sometimes gave land to anyone who would work and clear it. One of the biggest nineteenth century government infrastructure projects, the Erie Canal, opened the country and led to New York’s powerful industrial spine from Buffalo to New York City that lasted well over a century.

States whose governments owed their election to the whole people, governed for the good of their peoples, regulated to protect their people from the kind of disastrous accident we just saw in Bangladesh. And we all shared the prosperity.

There have always been thieves among politicians. Nevertheless, in fits and starts, our governments took care of our people – precisely the lesson the world’s poor countries have never learned – that we can let some rich people and families syphon off all the wealth they can, or we can govern for the good of all, for the people.

I read a story in the paper a few days ago about one of our communities that was doing something for the homeless. I started to say Hallelujah, because people understood the need to protect us all, to govern for everyone, including those down on their luck, and that the success of democracy – morally, economically, even militarily – rests on our ability to pull together and protect each other. Then I read on. They would provide for the homeless when the temperature was below 10 degrees. My heart sank. Paraphrasing John Dunne, none of us is an island, entire unto ourselves. Anyone’s loss diminishes us all.

Happy holidays everyone.

Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and author of Morality Imposed: The Rehnquist Court and Liberty in America. He has served on the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and in the US Peace Corps in Iran. This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 24, 2013.

[i] Well worth reading on that difference: Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith, The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics (New York: Public Affairs 2011); Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty (New York: Crown Publishers 2012).