A stated goal of the United States is to support and promote democracy throughout the world. This seems reasonable, because democracy has often worked well in our own and other Western countries, and because no other form of government has consistently been better. So is democracy the best form of government? I submit that it is the best only if certain conditions are met.
For democracy to work, the public must be well informed and willing to consider, at least to some extent, the country’s interests in addition to their own self-interests. If a major fraction of the public does not care about or know what is good for the country or is totally motivated by self-interest, the government and the country will fail. Sadly this appears to be the case in the U.S. today as evidenced by Jay Leno’s "JayWalking Segments" in which most young people interviewed – even college graduates – have no idea about issues important to our country. They appear to be more interested in sports and their social life and more knowledgeable about TV sitcoms and reality shows.
How can such individuals be relied upon to pick government leaders who will take care of our country’s interests in the trying times it faces politically and economically? An ill-informed and non-caring public is more likely to pick leaders who are the slickest talkers and who promise the most despite the impossibility or negative effects of keeping these promises. This know-nothing or self-interested nature of our electorate contributes importantly to the ever expanding entitlement culture in the U.S. and the resulting dangerous expansion of our national debt.
Another related requirement for democracy to be an effective form of government is the need for an honest and objective media and press. A controlled or biased source of information contributes hugely to an ill-informed public. Whoever controls the media and the press controls the minds of the voters. For democracy to work effectively, the public must not only want to be informed, they must also be given the necessary objective facts to make valid judgments. The press has a vital responsibility to provide such facts with minimal bias. There is considerable doubt about whether or not this is occurring today in the U.S.
Of even greater importance to a successful democracy is the ethical stature of its leaders and their motivation – once elected – to act in the best interests of the country. Many forces act upon our leaders and are counter to these interests. These include obligations to those who helped elect them, ideology, personal gain, a desire to be re-elected, and most importantly the corrupting requirement to solicit campaign financing. In the U.S. currently, the need to finance expensive campaigns is a major flaw in our democracy, and is really a veiled form of bribery.
For a democratic leader to be successful in terms of doing a good job of leading the country, all these forces must be overridden by the desire to do what is right and best for the whole country. This means the leader must not serve solely special or self-interests, and must have the courage and inner strength to do what may at the moment be unpopular with his or her electoral base. He or she must unite the country rather than divide it for short-term political or parochial gain. Unfortunately many of our recently elected U.S. leaders have not met any of these requirements. If this trend continues, our democracy will serve the country’s interests poorly, and the U.S. will decline rather than gain in stature and strength.
Efforts at democracy in the Middle East and elsewhere have failed because some or all of the requirements discussed here have not been met. A similar decline awaits our U.S. democracy if the current flaws in the underlying system cannot be corrected.
So far this discussion has largely been related to the U.S. federal government. However, the same considerations apply to effective governments at the county, state, and city levels, and to governing bodies of other entities which purport to be managed in a democratic fashion. This even applies to our vascular societies. The ethics and character of the leaders and those choosing them are important to effective governance and the success of the organization. If special interests, financial conflicts, and self-interest prevail over the needs of the organization, the latter will fail and decline.
Dr. Veith is Professor of Surgery at New York University Medical Center and the Cleveland Clinic. He is an associate medical editor for Vascular Specialist.