Harold Meyerson: A Flawed American Political Model Aids China





[Harold Meyerson is a contributor to the Washington Post.]

I don't mean to sound nostalgic for the Cold War, but we've got to stop conducting ourselves as if nobody is looking....

The Cold War at least compelled us to pay attention to the things our adversaries said about us. Contesting the Soviets for the allegiance of postwar Europe and the newly post-colonial nations of Africa and Asia involved more than economic aid, intelligence operations and military might. It also required us to live up to our ideals, to be that "city on a hill" that Ronald Reagan frequently evoked.

Enactment of the civil rights legislation of the '60s (which, ironically, Reagan opposed) immeasurably bolstered our claim that in the United States all men were created equal. Our assertion that the United States was a land of mass prosperity was surely strengthened by the three-decade boom that followed World War II, during which vastly more Americans went to and graduated from college than ever before, and median household incomes increased at the same rate as productivity. At the height of the Cold War, the whole world was watching us, and we rose to the occasion by expanding equality and prosperity.

The achievements of the postwar era were driven by domestic pressures, of course: the demands of African Americans for equality, the high rate of unionization, the ascendance of manufacturing over banking. But our foreign policy operatives took care to market our achievements and our culture -- the American model -- to a model-shopping world....

But that was then. Today, China has emerged as a global economic powerhouse and political competitor. Unlike the Soviet Union, it does not seek to remake the world in its image, but neither is it a friend of democracy. Its booming economy -- in contrast to those of the wheezing West -- may be viewed as validating state industrial policy, which can help build national prosperity, but China also sees it as an endorsement of authoritarian efficiency. Increasingly, the Chinese are leveling the kinds of attacks the Soviets used to make against the imperfections of our democracy. Li Pen, a leading figure in China's National People's Congress, was quoted in China Daily, an official newspaper, this month on the shortcomings of our political system. "Western-style elections," he said, "are a game for the rich. They are affected by the resources and funding that a candidate can utilize. Those who manage to win elections are easily in the shoes of their parties or sponsors."

Like the old Soviet criticisms of Jim Crow, Li's allegations have power because they're considerably -- though not entirely -- true. And many American conservatives behave as though eager to prove them right. The Supreme Court's January decision in Citizens United, allowing corporations to make limitless investments in election campaigns, reads as if crafted to validate Li's point. The Senate's descent into dysfunction, into a body bent on thwarting majority rule, mocks our democratic values for all the world to see....

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