“I wish things were that ruthlessly efficient,” President Obama said, commenting on the portrayal of Congress in the award-winning Netflix drama House of Cards. “This guy [Frank Underwood]’s getting a lot of things done.”
It’s a feeling that many American viewers (including myself) can clearly identify with. Sure, Vice President Underwood is everything that is wrong with politics, boasting a litany of wrongs that range from corruption to murder, but it’s hard not to contrast his ability to whip Congress into shape with the current sorry state of the Hill. Indeed, seeing Tea Party Republicans handcuffed and dragged into the Senate to avoid a government shutdown in the show’s third episode was downright cathartic after last October’s budget debacle.
Another great political TV show, Denmark’s Borgen, follows a similar line of thought. Machiavelli quotes such as “It is better to be feared than to be loved” precede each episode as a first-term Prime Minister is forced to let go of her idealism in favor of pragmatic, cutthroat politics. The dominant message: power doesn’t come through being nice to people. Those that see humanity through rose-colored lenses are those whose screen time is the most short-lived. It is those who view ideologies as mostly empty and elected officials as ambitious, self-interested individuals that succeed and, even more importantly, who are respected.
All this begs the question, Would we be better off under a leader that spends less time and energy trying to appear ‘ethical’ and more exerting power?
Recent events in Syria and Crimea seem to draw a sharp dichotomy between a strong autocratic ruler, Putin, and a weak democratic one, Obama. In many ways, foreign policy has always been undemocratic. Meetings take place behind close doors and most decisions can be made by executive order. The credibility of a Head of State comes from their ability to deliver on the promises made in these closed or semi-closed meetings. As for Putin, there is no doubt that the Russian President can deliver on his promises. He dominates the Duma and every other branch of government completely, to the detriment of democracy.
Obama, on the other hand, can hardly be counted on in this way. This isn’t a cheap attempt to bash the President but merely an observation. His ‘red line’ on Syria disappeared when the lack of support for military intervention in Congress, and among the general public, was revealed. In Iran, rebellious representatives like Sen. Robert Menendez can easily undermine the administration’s historic nuclear deal with Tehran. Don’t get me wrong; this kind of dissent is arguably the sign of a functioning democracy, but one also can’t deny that it impedes getting things done, which is precisely what a shocking number of Americans are frustrated with.
A nation of cynics
Public disappointment with democratically elected leaders mirrors disappointment with democracy in general. The Economist recently published a four-page essay entitled ‘What’s gone wrong with democracy’, in which two factors are blamed for this general disenchantment with representative politics: the most recent financial crisis and the rise of China. Just as Obama’s weakness can be contrasted with Putin’s apparent strength on the individual level, the liberal democratic order (portrayed by the U.S. and Western Europe) look increasingly debt-laden and deficient whereas the efficiency of China’s governance is impressive by all accounts. The idea is that, as long as the economy is growing, democratic credentials like freedom of expression or political association matter less to people. Indeed, 85% of Chinese are satisfied with their country’s direction according to the Pew Center’s 2013 Global Attitudes survey, compared with only 31% of Americans. Moreover, China’s government has proven capable of passing reforms that Capitol Hill could only dream of. As the Economist article notes, Beijing’s bureaucracy was able to implement a pension scheme that increased coverage to 240 million rural inhabitants in just two years.
The logic that economic growth can counter public demand for political reform is also employed in the upper echelons of Russia’s government. With an economy dangerously dependent on global energy prices, the logic could be reformulated as, ‘as long as gas prices remain record-high, civil society can be controlled.’ This pessimistic view of humanity is not far from the Washington of House of Cards. Individuals are treated as rational maximizers who will be more outraged if they have to pay extra to fill up their car than if the political class is allegedly involved in some complex scandal. After all, the conventional wisdom in a nation of cynics is that all politicians are at best self-interested and at worst corrupt. If universal self-interest is taken as a given, our leaders might as well be corrupt and effective, characteristics that research has shown are not as antithetical as one might expect.
Nevertheless, it is if, or when, that economic growth dries up that the ‘democratic deficit’ of countries like China and Russia will cause problems for the country’s elite. There are signs that this is already occurring. Prior to Putin’s 2012 election race, the former KGB agent made a series of elaborate promises to the electorate, including a $775 billion revamping of the military. A Citigroup study estimates that the price of Russian oil would have to reach the unprecedented high price of $150 a barrel in order for the Putin administration to fulfill its promises. Currently, Russian oil is trading at around $107 a barrel, which is already artificially high.
In 1944, George Orwell wrote a column in the leftist weekly Tribune entitled ‘History is Written By the Winners’ in which he argued, “the really frightening thing about totalitarianism is not that it commits ‘atrocities’ but that it attacks the concept of objective truth; it claims to control the past as well as the future.” At the end of the day, we might be tempted to accept politicians’ doublespeak if they attain policy goals that are important to us, but if leaders are only deemed to be ‘good’ insofar as they are successful, they will inevitably crack down on any opposing narratives, framing every policy as a success in an attempt retain power. Though it sounds trite, democracy may be slow and it may make leaders appear frustratingly inefficient, but totalitarianism is never far away.