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Democracies’ Inauspicious Summit

December 12th, 2021 by dk

President Biden this week convened 110 nations for a two-day “Summit for Democracy.” It’s an inauspicious time for such a summit. Some believe Biden is closing the barn after the animals have escaped, both at home and abroad.

Don’t take my word for it. Pope Francis had this to say in Greece, visiting the birthplace of democracy: “We cannot avoid noting with concern how today … we are witnessing a retreat from democracy. Democracy requires participation and involvement on the part of all. It is complex, whereas authoritarianism is peremptory and populism’s easy answers appear attractive.”

Francis described the western world as being “trapped [in a] frenzy of a thousand earthly concerns and the insatiable greed of a depersonalizing consumerism.” He asked for a move from “partisanship to participation” that focuses on “the weaker strata of society.” He called for a renewal of “the art of the common good.”

The Pope’s audience was worldwide. He visited asylum-seekers twice who are kept in cages, noting how fear is rising and charity is falling. The art of the common good is being lost, possibly irrevocably. (I visited Isle of Man a few years ago, where they have been practicing democracy continuously since 979 AD, for similar inspiration. I’ll tell you what I learned there another time.)

Meanwhile, the situation at home is no better. Barton Gellman’s lead article in the current issue of The Atlantic starts like this: “The prospect of democratic collapse is not remote. People with the motive to make it happen are manufacturing the means. Given the opportunity, they will act. They are acting already. Who or what will safeguard our constitutional order is not apparent today. It is not even apparent who will try.” Gellman continues for 14,000 words, but you can see where he’s going.

As democracies go, the United States has been considered Too Big to Fail since WWII. But current and recent Congresses seem determined to show that we are Too Big to Succeed. Gellman spells out in excruciating detail how we’re facing a clear and present danger, but doing almost nothing to protect ourselves.

Populism and authoritarianism seem like opposites, but they are two heads attached to the same monster, promising simple solutions and asking little from the people. Populist campaigns promise people what they want and authoritarian mechanisms deliver what’s been promised.

Our American system of checks and balances was built to cleave those two. Political campaigns will always stir up popular fervor, but governing has been designed to require compromise and the consent of the minority. These foundations are eroding, but no one seems to know what we can do about it.

Take the government’s handling of the Omicron variant as an example. Vaccine mandates are seen as authoritarian, but reaching herd immunity through populist persuasion is opposed by Biden’s political opponents. “The art of the common good” has been replaced with winning at any cost.

“Omicron is cause for concern, but not for panic,” President Biden said. Unfortunately, panic is what sells. Biden (and Omicron) will be ignored, or provoke panic. There’s nothing currently in between.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at

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