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Democracy in Crisis

Author: Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies
October 9, 2013
Folha de Sao Paulo

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Originally published in Portuguese on Folha de Sao Paulo:

Last week, two days into the government shut-down, I happened to visit the town of Oxford, in Butler County, Ohio. A public university there had invited me to give a lecture. It turns out that Butler County is the district that John Boehner, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, represents.

Driving through his district, I had a long talk with one of his constituents, a single mother and grandmother who earns a modest living driving students, professors and others between Oxford and the Cincinnati, Ohio airport.

Angela and I had a solid hour to talk. I didn't ask her if she had voted for Speaker Boehner--although the NSA may behave otherwise, in the United States it is considered impolite and an invasion of individual privacy to ask people how they voted. But driving through the soy fields of Ohio and the industrial belt along the Ohio River, we talked about the shut-down, the possible default, and the next election.

Angela told me that there were a lot of things she didn't like about President Obama. I pressed for specifics, but she laughed at herself for not being able to come up with any. Then she became very serious. She slowed down the car almost to a stop and turned around. "Now I have a question for you. Do you think the Tea Party and the Republicans are doing this to Obama because he is black?"

Angela answered before I could. She told me she thinks that from the second Obama was first elected, the Tea Party has been motivated not primarily by a preference for less government spending. Rather, she said she had observed a far more fundamental racist anger over the prospect of a black man telling white Americans what to do. And she added, "if they are doing this to Obama, imagine what they are going to do to Hillary Clinton in 2016."

Whatever the racial subtext playing out, or electoral strategy the GOP hopes to achieve from the government shutdown and a possible sovereign default, we are now living a far more severe, existential crisis of American democracy. As schoolchildren we learn from our textbooks that the essence of democracy is the protection of minorities from the tyranny of the majority.

And yet, a total of 30 Tea Party cadre representing just 6.4 percent of a total of 313 million Americans, along with the GOP elders who have indulged these radicals, have perverted that basic premise of American democracy. They have put at risk the American political system of checks and balances, obliterated the concept of a loyal opposition, and created a crisis of governance that threatens national and global economic welfare.

Like Speaker Boehner's constituent, I find it hard to believe that their radicalism derives from a simple philosophical dispute over fiscal policy.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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