Richard Cohen's Authoritarian Fetish

The Washington Post columnist has discovered America’s problem: too much democracy.

By Nathan Pippenger

Lincoln Steffens’s notorious early assessment of the USSR—“I have seen the future, and it works”—is one of the more famous examples of an earnest but misguided enthusiasm for a foreign political regime that seems to promise an alternative to failures at home. Richard Cohen’s latest column in the Washington Post, eulogizing the recently departed authoritarian founder of modern Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, doesn’t feature one line that can match Steffens for snappiness, but it’s of the same genre.

Cohen’s piece begins with a lengthy windup: Lee “was a disciplinarian,” famous for canings and the aggressive use of the death penalty. As human rights groups stress, his country continues to suppress dissent and censor the press. He ran, Cohen admits, “a one-man state and he ran it, on occasion, repressively.” But he was also admired for achieving “what we could not.” Like what?, a curious reader might ask. In response, Cohen serves up a sterling example of slippery columnist logic: This one thing is kind of like this other thing, which proves my point about this other, third thing. In Cohen’s case, it’s Singaporean mass transit, Amtrak, and democracy, and don’t worry: he worked in some kind words for Mussolini too. “Lee, as they once said of Mussolini, made the trains run on time. America’s trains too often don’t run at all.” This is it! At last, five paragraphs in:

We suffer from an excess of democracy. We have a Congress that has been gridlocked for as long as anyone can remember. It is at the mercy of any extremist from anywhere in the country who can threaten a primary fight. Our infrastructure is eroding, yet we seem incapable of doing anything about it. Lee Kuan Yew knew what to do about it. If you need a bridge, build it.

There’s something almost chaotic about the collision of reasons and conclusions in this paragraph—as if Cohen’s thoughts were bumper cars whose steering had failed and were crashing into each other, at random. Cohen claims that congressional gridlock has been around “for as long as anyone can remember.” And yes, it is true that 111th Congress—one of the most productive in history—exists now only as a distant memory, having ended a whole five years ago. The gridlock that has prevailed since has many causes: the Senate gives disproportionate representation to sparsely-populated conservative states. House districts are currently drawn to give the GOP an advantage, even when Democrats win more votes. The untrammeled power of rich donors and corporations creates ideological distortions which make low taxes on the rich a top priority for one of our two major parties, meaning that’s it tough to pay for, among other things, new bridges. And the frequent failure of the news media to accurately report this dynamic, along with a lack of interest among voters, has allowed the GOP to stonewall President Obama’s infrastructure plan with few political consequences.

If any of the foregoing—unrepresentative institutions, gerrymandered districts, oligarchical power, a press that’s falling down on the job, voter apathy—sound to you like “too much democracy,” then congratulations! A lucrative columnist job at a major newspaper could soon be yours. Just make sure it’s not in Singapore—the trains are great, but freedom of the press is still being sorted out.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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