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Assessing American Liberal Democracy

Three scholars offer perspectives on the shortcomings and successes of a complex United States institution

By Everett Carll LaddEverett Carll Ladd is a professor of political science at the University of Connecticut and president of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research. / March 20, 1992

THOSE trying to come to grips with the performance of complex institutions - in these three books, scholars assessing American liberal democracy - face a daunting task in finding the proper perspective. How does one deal with the fact that every such institution has problems?

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Many seem to think it's enough to explore the problems forthrightly. But even the most successful institutions are riddled with inadequacies. The decision to "deal forthrightly" with their problems can only result, then, in accounts that largely ignore these institutions' most substantial feature - their relative success.

American liberal democracy comprises ideas and institutions that have been extraordinarily successful. They have, for example, lasted a very long time, because they have retained the support of the people living under them. They have extended individual rights and guarantees to a degree rarely equaled elsewhere. And around the world today, institutions similar to, if not modeled on them, are ascendant as never before.

Nonetheless, American liberal democracy does, in fact, face many large problems, and not even its greatest admirer thinks its record is flawless.

Finding the proper perspective on all this involves steering a course between two equally enervating - and intellectually inadequate - alternatives: a celebration of the achievements, which stands complacent before the shortcomings; and a preoccupation with the failures, which forfeits the energy and confidence relative success should impart.

Earlier in United States history, commentators were often inclined to err in the former direction. No more. Anything that hints of celebration is out of fashion. But the "problems perspective," though ascendant, may err at least as badly when confronting relatively vigorous and attaining institutions, such as those of liberal democratic governance in the United States.

James S. Fishkin, who teaches political theory at the University of Texas, argues in Democracy and Deliberation: New Directions for Democratic Reform (Yale University Press, 133 pp., $17.95) that the American system now lacks a sufficient capacity for thoughtful and informed scrutiny in its presidential candidate selection process.

In the interest of greater political equality, the United States has, over the last quarter century, largely removed political party leadership from any active role in nominee selection.

Rather than being chosen through party deliberation, presidential candidates are now self-starters who run a gauntlet of primaries. They try to "define themselves" through snippets and sound bites directly to a mass electorate, which really didn't know much about many of them before the start of the feverish, television-dominated campaign.

This system lacks a champion. Quite literally, no one thinks it is ideal.

But every conceivable alternative has shortcomings too. Fishkin's absorption with the present system's weaknesses inclines him, unconsciously, to change at any price.

Surprisingly, he proposes as a solution to our unreflective, media-centered presidential selection process the convening of a "National Caucus." A randomly selected sample of American voters would be assembled under the auspices of a television network and, with cameras trained on them continuously, would "deliberate" for a few days about the needed nominee.